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Durum, pasta industry copes with volatile demand

It’s important for consumers to understand that the food chain is stable, despite occasional spot shortages of pasta, and other staples, says an executive for Columbia Grain International.

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Columbia Grain International maintains a number of elevators that supply durum, spring wheat and other crops for domestic and international markets. Here is their facility at Plentywood, Mont., an arid area well-suited to durum wheat which is a key ingredient in premium pasta products. Photo courtesy Columbia Grain International. Columbia Grain International / Agweek
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PORTLAND, Ore. — Pasta and other “shelf-stable” stables like pulse crops are “flying off the grocery shelves” in the era of COVID-19 social distancing, but it’s important for consumers to understand that the food chain is stable, says an executive for Columbia Grain International.

Kurt Haarmann, senior vice president of Columbia Grain International, based in Portland, said the food industry — producers, to handlers, to processors — are on the job and ready for increasing demand. The company is important to Montana and North Dakota producers, and to food companies throughout the world.

Food Manufacturing , food industry news source, based in Madison, Wis., said that 88% of people have been cooking more meals at home since COVID-19 restrictions have gone into effect. The newsletter’s May 18 issue features a survey of 630 consumers by Influence Central , a company that “delivers social media and digital campaigns.”

Among the COVID-19 trends: 72% had lessened frequency of grocery shopping trips; 70% snack and eat more frequently; 42% eat more fruit and vegetables; 30% eat more meat, poultry and fish; 49% eat more meals from scratch.

“Organics, while always an upscale option especially in vegetables, fruits and milk products, have become a skippable luxury for those facing tight budgets,” the Influence Central survey said. “Baking soda, flour and sugar haven’t had a moment like this since the turn of the new millennium,” the article said.

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“We’ve seen consumers want to store up and fill the pantry with products they know they can rely on, and go to at any time for meals,” Haarmann said.

Empty shelves?

Haarmann said Columbia Grain International is a significant supplier in domestic and international markets for durum and hard red spring. The company services all major makers of pasta. While declining to list retail brands, he acknowledged it would include large producers, including Dakota Growers Pasta, a brand of Post, who declined to be interviewed by Agweek for this story, or to confirm unofficial reports that business is good.

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A farmer inspects a field of durum wheat that approaches maturity in a field near Mayville, N.D., on July 28, 2017. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Haarman said consumers occasionally see shelves empty of some grain-related products, but told Agweek, it’s “troubling, maybe dangerous at times” to hear the level of concern. He said it’s important to realize that those are very short-term in nature, and that “in the United States we have the most secure food chain in the world.”

“Any time you have a run on any particular product that exceeds the normal by 25% or 50%, you have the potential for a short-term shortage — for a week or two — as supplies are restocked on the grocery shelves, and as producers respond to it, from their warehouses,” he said.

The surge in demand for affordable staples is understandable but hard to read. “I think it’s important for people to realize if we all consume at normal rates, or even with a little bit of growth, the market can adjust to that and can handle that. If we all buy two months supply of groceries, there will be some shortages from time to time. But if we keep cool heads, I think we’ll realize the system is built to keep that supply. The food chain is secure.”

Stay calm, eat pasta

Columbia Grain has seen a “nearby surge” of about 25% in durum sales and processing.

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That’s a direct correlation with the amounts customers have been taking from shelves, he said.

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A truck weighs out after delivering grain to Columbia Grain, Inc., of Arvilla, N.D. The elevator is the eastern end of a supply of durum and hard red spring wheat for the company, which extends to the Pacific Northwest.Photo taken Sept. 12, 2018, at Arvilla, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“Anecdotally, we’ve all seen empty store shelves at times during this crisis,” Haarmann said. “I know that producers are working to replace those stocks as quickly as we can.”

It will be tricky for farmers to read the tea leaves for future years. Farmers tend to start making future planting decisions in December to March, he said.

“We have to forecast perhaps a year beyond that, to get seed in place, to make sure our agronomy department is set up to service that demand. We are trying to forecast two years out on our seed,” he said. Then the company is trying to help growers with that decision each springtime to determine what’s going to work for profits and how that will fit into their rotations. "We rely a lot on Mother Nature, as do they, to give us the products that we need."

Producers ponder

Every crop year is a reactive process, Haarmann said.

“I think the interesting question going forward, as we cultivate this growth and our new paradigm around shelf-stable foods is, are we changing long-term dietary habits, as people realize that the food chain is really, really critical and inter-tied, and not just a guarantee,” he said. “Are we changing the way people buy and consume foods? Is that there for the long-term, as markets open up? As states open up?”

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Durum wheat for pasta is a significant crop for northern Montana and North Dakota, for Columbia Grain International, which operates this facility at Sweet Grass, Mont. Photo courtesy Columbia Grain International. Columbia Grain International / Agweek


Columbia Grain International tries to help farmers look forward rather than backward. “A lot of times we hear about producers planting for last year’s price. We encourage producers to look through a windshield and not through a rearview mirror,” he said.

Haarmann sees durum remaining in its historical growing pattern. “It grows very well in arid conditions.

“We handle hard red spring wheat from Arvilla, N.D. (in eastern North Dakota), to Lewiston, Idaho, and Pasco, Wash. The primary production area for hard red spring wheat is from the Red River Valley and Montana. The durum production area is in northwest North Dakota and northeast Montana."

Durum is primarily a domestic product, 90%, with 10% going internationally. Hard red spring wheat is 30% domestic and 70% export. The company’s footprint is from North Dakota's Red River Valley on the east, across the northern tier states to the Pacific Northwest.

The Arvilla area has been an important growth area for corn as varieties have allowed the crop to move north and west. The company has expanded quite a bit there. The company is anticipating a year where “the market may struggle with prevent-plant,” referring to the farmer’s option of using prevented-planting insurance, rather than putting in a crop.

“That’s a challenge that we’re not alone in facing,” he said.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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