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Wheat in a field ready for harvest

Farmers weigh whether to plant durum

PLAZA, N.D. — Durum always has been a big part of Keith Deutsch's life. Besides raising the crop, the 60-year-old Plaza, N.D., farmer promoted it through service on the U.S. Durum Growers Association, including a stint as the group's president.

But Deutsch has "termed out" on the association's board, reaching the limit of his potential service. What's more, he's strongly considering not planting any durum himself this spring.

"I might end up having a little. But I don't think it would be much. The price just doesn't justify the risk (of growing it)," he says.

Like many durum farmers in North Dakota and Montana, which dominate U.S. production of the crop, Deutsch is frustrated with longstanding problems with vomitoxin. The toxin, which has flared up repeatedly in area durum, leads to huge price reductions, known as discounts, in infected grain. In some cases, infected grain can't be sold at any price.

Historically, durum, used to make pasta, is considered riskier to grow than spring wheat, used to make pasta. So durum fetches a premium, or higher price, to compensate for the greater risk. Now, Deutsch and some other durum farmers who have battled vomitoxin say the premium no longer justifies the risk.

Farmers in areas that haven't been so hard hit may think differently, however.

Byron Richard, a Belfield, N.D., farmer, is considering planting durum instead of spring wheat in 2017. He farms in the southwest part of the state, an area that isn't a major producer of durum and which generally avoided severe problems with vom in 2016.

"We've avoided most of the disease problems they've had in the northern part of the state. So durum might be a fit for us," he said.

Gordon Stoner, an Outlook, Mont., durum grower who was hit hard this year by vomitoxin, said he's still evaluating what to plant this spring.

But while vom was a severe problem for many Montana durum farmers in 2016, some producers in the state largely avoided it — and consequently will be more willing to plant it this year, he said.

"A lot depends on how much of it (vom) you had last year," Stoner said.

U.S. farmers planted 2.15 million acres of durum in 2016, with North Dakota producers accounting for 1.3 million and Montana growers for 600,000. Most of the remaining acres were so-called "desert durum" planted on irrigated land in the southwest U.S.

Spreading west

Once, durum — which fares best in dry, hot days and cool nights — was grown across most of North Dakota. But the region's ongoing wet cycle, which began in the early 1990s, led to widespread Fusarium head blight, also known as scab, in durum fields. Scab, in turn, produces vomitoxin, also known as vom, Deoxynivalenol and DON. Human health isn't affected unless infected grain is ingested in very high quantities, but grain with vomitoxin can affect flavors in food and processing performance. So millers try to limit vomitoxin levels.

As scab problems intensified, durum production has shifted to western North Dakota, which typically receives less rain and had been less susceptible to scab than the rest of the state. Northeast Montana, where rainfall usually is limited, also has seen a big upturn in durum acres in recent years.

The 2016 crop season, however, brought some of the worst scab problems ever and saw the disease pop in many durum fields that previously had avoided it.

Deutsch said prices and, to a lesser extent planting conditions this spring, ultimately will determine whether he plants durum and, if so, how much,

"You've got to have the price. Right now, the prices are just so discouraging when this (vom problems) are this bad," he said.