Desert Durum wheat, a grain grown in Arizona and Southern California, is highly sought by U.S. and Italian pasta makers for its strong gluten protein trait, consistent amber color, low moisture content, large uniform kernels, and high semolina (wheat flour) yield.
For the 2014-2016 Desert Durum crops, growers in these two states, according to USDA statistics, harvested a combined 125,000-175,000 acres per year with about 80 percent of the acreage in Arizona. An industry leader says Desert Durum represented about 17 percent of total U.S. durum production during those same years.
California’s Desert Durum production is mostly concentrated in the Imperial and Colorado River valleys with modest acreage in the San Joaquin Valley.
About half of the annual tonnage is exported to Italy, the major export destination.
For decades, the Desert Durum industry has worked hard to create a strong positive crop identity while delivering a high quality product to commodity buyers, and in the end, consumers. It’s helped the industry maintain a competitive edge over durum grown in other states and countries, and led to some premium pricing for Desert Durum grain.
Eric Wilkey, president of Arizona Grain, Inc. at Casa Grande, Ariz., says, “I have a significant U.S. customer who regularly pays a premium for Desert Durum compared to northern plains durum due to the functionality of the Desert Durum product and its guarantee of quality.”
He adds, “The premium can vary from year to year but he consistently pays a premium when you compare prices at the same time in the marketplace.”
Wilkey explains that Desert Durum wheat is a good value for several reasons - its low 7 to 8 percent moisture content tied to the desert-growing environment, its high gluten content, a prized semolina color score that makes bright yellow pasta, plus product predictability.
Buyers receive almost the exact same quality product from year to year, plus the crop is harvested from May through July, hitting the commercial market several months before northern U.S. and Canadian supplies.
One of the sharpest new tools in the Desert Durum industry’s toolbox to enhance the industry’s success is a certification mark granted in June 2016 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in Washington, DC. The joint owners of the mark are the Arizona Grain Research and Protection Council (AGRPC) and the California Wheat Commission (CWC).
“The certification mark is designed to protect the intrinsic value of the Desert Durum food chain including growers, handlers, and others,” says AGRPC Chair David Sharp, a Desert Durum wheat grower at Lyreedale Farms at Roll, Ariz.
AGRPC member Michael Edgar adds, “It’s a way for the industry to maintain value for the high quality wheat we raise here.”
Edgar is president of Barkley Seed Inc. at Yuma, Ariz. Barkley Seed and Arizona Grain Inc. breed identity preserved durum wheat varieties, grow wheat, and sign production contracts with growers.
The USPTO’s Desert Durum certification mark (with capital D’s) - Reg. No. 4,976,449 - legally defines what constitutes Desert Durum - durum wheat grown with irrigation in the desert valleys and lowlands of Arizona and California.
The mark can help prevent misrepresentation of grain as Desert Durum. For example, there have occasionally been re-sales of grain as “Desert Durum” by third-party sellers when, in fact, much of the load contained other types of durum. That’s not allowed under the terms of the certification mark.
“You can’t mix Desert Durum 50-50 with durum from other origins and call it Desert Durum,” explains Allan Simons, the AGRPC’s executive director.
“It has to be 90 percent Desert Durum for it to function well for the end use customer,” notes Wilkey.
A misrepresented sale can create problems for buyers and the Desert Durum industry. Desert Durum grain’s specific properties, including low moisture content and large kernels, are what mills and pasta makers specifically want.
Buyers desire a specific variety or varieties of Desert Durum and have equipped their mills accordingly to efficiently and effectively process the specific grain. An unexpected durum type can cause serious and expensive problems at the mill.
“If a true non-desert origin durum is called Desert Durum and it performs poorly it puts a black eye on us,” Wilkey says.
At the AGRPC quarterly meeting held in late January attended by Western Farm Press, Executive Director Simons said the Desert Durum certification mark provides the council and the commission with intellectual property protection, plus a means to limit potential misrepresentation of non-qualifying grain as Desert Durum.
“From a Desert Durum grower perspective, the certification mark adds some long-term security to the industry by protecting the identity (integrity) of the product,” he says. “For Desert Durum handlers, it’s more of a direct benefit. They are able to provide potential buyers with some specifics about the criteria necessary for grain to be called Desert Durum.”
Much of the CWC’s work on the certification mark was conducted by Janice Cooper, the group’s former executive director; work now continued by Claudia Carter who assumed the same leadership position last year.
Several challenges lie ahead and are being addressed by the AGRPC and CWC, including license agreement parameters to authorize companies to use the Desert Durum mark on their grain shipments that meet the USPTO definition.
Simons says, “The challenge for the two councils is to agree on the exact licensing agreement language which is currently in a draft form.”
AGRPC has tentatively authorized Arizona Grain. Inc. and Barkley Seed, Inc. to use the Desert Durum name on their grain production. Other potential users who desire to use the certification mark are encouraged to contact AGRPC or CWC to seek permission. Any use of the mark without permission can constitute an infringement of the owners’ rights.
Additionally, the Arizona and California organizations must develop a plan to deal with possible unauthorized or inappropriate use of the mark.
“Both wheat groups are required to, in effect, monitor and enforce the proper use of the term Desert Durum,” says Simons. “If we find it’s being misused we will issue cease and desist orders and possibly seek damages.”
The grain leader notes, “If we don’t defend it adequately then we risk losing the protection.”
Legal guidance on certification mark issues has been provided by patent and trademark attorney Jill England of Sacramento, Calif.
It’s been a long yet rewarding road for the California Wheat Commission and the Arizona Grain Research and Protection Council. In Arizona, Sharp believes it’s been a worthwhile journey, thanks to the hands-on efforts of the committee members, who are all growers.
Sharp says, “I’m extremely pleased with the members of the council and their hard work to protect this industry. I thank each of them for their service and their accomplishments for moving the Desert Durum industry to the next level.”