Roy Motter has a twinkle in his eye that speaks volumes about the California and U.S. wheat industries.
Born into a California family with restaurant management as its core, Motter married a farmer’s daughter, Jacqueline Fleming, in California’s Imperial Valley in 1972. He sensed the call to farm and quit an accounting job in San Diego to join the Fleming family’s Spruce Farms located in Brawley (Imperial County).
For 31 years, Motter has successfully managed Spruce Farms’ wheat operation. This summer, Motter will accept a post as an officer for U.S. Wheat Associates (USW), the wheat industry’s export market development organization which promotes U.S. wheat sales to 100-plus countries.
“I am very excited about the opportunity that the U.S. Wheat Associates Board has bestowed on me as an officer,” Motter said in his farm office in late March.
Motter, 63, is a managing partner of the 2,500-acre diversified farming operation. He and his third-generation farmer brothers-in-law Larry and Robert Fleming, grow winter produce, Desert Durum wheat, sugar beets, seed alfalfa, and Sudan hay. The Fleming family has farmed for about 90 years.
“I enjoy faming,” Motter said. “I like the green color of growing fields of wheat and its transition to the amber color. The song America the Beautiful includes the phrase ‘amber waves of grain.’ It’s a good feeling to know our farm feeds people.”
With fingers flying, Motter — the former accountant — rapidly struck the keys of the well-used office calculator and grinned.
“Spruce Farms produces about 3,500 tons of wheat annually which generates 2,500 tons of flour which becomes about 2,500 tons of pasta. With annual pasta consumption at about 20 pounds, Spruce Farms produces enough pasta to feed about 250,000 people.”
Spoken like an accountant — and a farmer.
Most years, wheat is a rotational crop at Spruce Farms. It has become a cash crop over the last three years due to good prices. Most of Motter’s 2012 crop is forward contracted to Barkley Seed, El Toro, and Imperial Grain Growers which sell the wheat to mills.
In the early days of wheat production, Spruce Farms Motter grew the Yecora Rojo red wheat variety and Mexicali Durum wheat. Grain head shattering under occasional windy conditions at harvest convinced Motter to eliminate red wheat in planting decisions.
Today, 100 percent of Motter’s wheat crop is Durum wheat, specifically Desert Durum, mainly used for pasta. Late this spring he will harvest fields planted in the RSI 59, Orita, Desert King, and Havasu varieties.
At Spruce Farms LLC, wheat requires about 3.5 acre-feet of water annually. The water is supplied from the Colorado River at a $20-per-acre-foot cost.
Last year’s wheat yields totaled about 3.6 tons per acre; an average crop for this low-desert production area.
Desert Durum is grown under irrigation in the desert valleys and lowlands in California and Arizona. About 12 percent of California’s 700,000 wheat acres is Desert Durum. About 95 percent of Arizona’s 100,000 acres of wheat are Desert Durum.
The name “Desert Durum” was trademarked in 1999 by the California Wheat Commission and the Arizona Grain Research and Promotion Council. Only durum wheat produced in California and Arizona qualifies for the Desert Durum trademark.
Desert Durum has an excellent reputation globally for milling into high-quality pasta. The mills value the wheat for its consistent low moisture content (less than 8 percent), large uniform kernels, and high gluten strength.
Most Desert Durum is harvested about three months before Durum grown in other wheat-producing states. Due to the consistent quality and yields under desert-growing conditions, growers have an opportunity to forward contract the crop if warranted by market conditions.
In 1996, the fungal disease Karnal bunt was detected in Durum wheat seed in Arizona by the Arizona Department of Agriculture. The disease can reduce flour quality, but does not pose a threat to human health.
Karnal bunt was more of a regulatory issue. There was never enough Karnal bunt found to impact wheat quality.
Yet the Karnal bunt label threatened wheat exports from desert-production areas. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) issued a Karnal bunt quarantine in Arizona and six adjacent counties in New Mexico and Texas. A month later, APHIS extended the quarantine into California’s Imperial County and eastern Riverside County.
Motter decided to jump into the Karnal bunt debate through involvement in the California Wheat Commission (CWC). Founded by wheat growers in 1983, the CWC supports research to improve wheat quality and marketability plus expand domestic and international wheat sales. Motter has served with the CWC since 1998; today as the board vice-chairman.
APHIS’ efforts, he says, were unfairly aimed to reduce export sales of Desert Durum from quarantined areas when the problem was actually little to non-existent.
Motter remembers representatives of APHIS entering his fields at harvest time to inspect and certify the fields as Karnal bunt-free before the combines could proceed.
“APHIS hired people who came out dressed in moon suit-looking outfits complete with face masks using a small machine to take field wheat samples,” Motter said. “They allegedly found a few spores in the Imperial Valley, but never any bunted kernels. There were incredible amounts of paperwork for producers to complete. It was more of a problem for harvesters and handlers than producers.”
U.S. wheat markets
Motter’s wheat industry involvement led to involvement with USW in 2008. The association has 18 offices — most overseas.
Seventy-two percent of USW’s funding is supported by the USDA through its market access, foreign market development, emerging markets, and quality samples programs. The remaining 28 percent is funded by producer checkoff dollars paid to state wheat commissions. State commissions are USW members; not individual producers.
The USDA dollars mainly fund USW international marketing efforts. State wheat commission funds support USW operating costs including salaries, office space rent, etc.
Motter’s involvement with USW to advance international wheat marketing has not gone unnoticed.
In July, Motter will assume the USW secretary/treasurer leadership post for 2012-2013. Traditionally, the secretary/treasurer moves into the vice-chairman position followed by the chairman post. Motter could serve as USW’s 2014-2015 board chair.
Motter has traveled abroad for USW including a Southeast Asia conference held in Bali. His new board responsibilities will take him to more countries to help develop more markets for U.S. wheat.
Not too bad for an accountant — turned wheat producer — who continues his quest to grow and market high-quality wheat to feed a growing population.
Motter’s top priority remains a wheat producer first.
“I like the idea of being my own boss and working outdoors,” Motter said. “It’s very satisfying to plant and grow a crop. You feel like you’re making a difference; taking something that doesn’t exist and turning it into food and fiber to feed and clothe the world.”
Motter hopes to make a “nickel or a dime” while doing that.