Durum acres might hold their ground

Government reports expect durum acres to drop, but industry officials think it'll come close to 2019 totals.

Durum wheat approaches maturity in a field near Mayville, N.D., on July 28, 2017. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Planted acres of durum โ€” of which North Dakota and Montana dominate U.S. production โ€” might be a little higher than the federal government estimated this spring, the president of the U.S. Durum Growers Association said.

"I think we'll see more acres in North Dakota" than the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted in its March 31 Prospective Plantings report, said Blake Inman, a Berthold, N.D., farmer and co-owner of a grain and seed company.

The USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service pegged North Dakota durum acres this year at 640,000 acres, down from 720,000 in 2019. Though it's too early to be certain, this year's acreage could end up being close to the 2019 total, he said.

When the March estimate was released, some in area agriculture thought the North Dakota 2020 number might be too low.

The March estimate predicted Montana 2020 durum acres at 570,000, which could end up fairly close to the actual number, Inman said.


Other than a small amount of durum grown on irrigated land in the southwest United States, so-called desert durum, virtually the entire durum crop is grown in North Dakota and Montana. Nationwide, U.S. farmers were expected to plant 1.29 million durum acres this spring.

The federal government doesn't track planting progress for durum. But Inman said planting has gone well and is virtually wrapped up in some areas, with less progress in other areas.

Once, durum, used to make pasta, was a major crop in most of North Dakota. Cool nights, long, warm days, adequate but not excessive precipitation and dry harvest conditions favored durum. Farmers in the state planted 3.7 million acres of it in 1976, a number that fell in part because of the rise of scab, a crop disease that can produce vomitoxin in grain and devastate durum quality. When quality suffers, farmers can get hit with steep discounts, or price reductions, for their durum.

Today, durum is what Inman and others call a "minor" crop. Corn and soybeans have picked up many of the acres that once were planted to durum, and durum is grown largely in western North Dakota and eastern Montana, where relatively dry conditions can make durum less susceptible to vom. Even in the those areas, however, crop disease has been a serious problem some years.

When quality and yields are favorable, durum can be a good crop to grow, But when quality is poor and discounts steep, durum is not favorable to raise. As a result, farmers generally expect a higher price, or premium, for durum than spring wheat or they will grow the latter.

Spring wheat prices weren't attractive this spring, which seems to have encouraged some area farmers to run the risk of potential durum discounts and plant more of the crop than USDA predicted, Inman said.

The hard red spring wheat grown in the Upper Midwest is used in baking bread and in blending to increase the gluten strength in flour.

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