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A good day for durum

ZAHL, N.D. -- It's a hot mid-August afternoon in western North Dakota, and Jason Brevik and his crew are harvesting durum. Yields and quality are good, and Brevik is pleased. But this is an early-planted durum field, one that benefited from relat...

Jason Brevik
Jason Brevik, a farmer from Zahl, N.D., stands in a field of durum Aug. 10 before harvest near Williston, N.D. (Nicolas Nelson, Agweek)
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ZAHL, N.D. - It’s a hot mid-August afternoon in western North Dakota, and Jason Brevik and his crew are harvesting durum.
Yields and quality are good, and Brevik is pleased. But this is an early-planted durum field, one that benefited from relatively plentiful moisture. Fields that were planted later ran short of moisture during a summer in which rain was rare.
“Those later fields just don’t look as good,” says the 35-year-old Zahl, N.D., farmer.
Agweek swung through western North Dakota, where durum is common, on Aug. 10, and harvest of the crop was just swinging into high gear.
Durum carries the risk of big discounts, or price reductions, as a result of poor quality. That makes the crop riskier to grow than spring wheat, so farmers typically want a higher price for durum to raise it.
When quality is good and farmers receive a higher price, durum can be a good crop to raise. But when quality is poor - and discounts are steep - durum can be horrid.
The latter was true in 2014, when widespread problems with crop disease followed by heavy rains during harvest hurt durum’s quality and led to massive discounts. Some durum was so damaged it couldn’t be sold at any price.
So far this year, however, durum promises to be a very good crop. It’s fetching an average of about $7 per bushel - compared with an average of just $4.50 per bushel for spring wheat - at area grain elevators surveyed weekly by Agweek. Yield and quality generally are good, too, farmers say.
A week from drought
Once, durum was raised across North Dakota. But the crop generally fares best in dryer conditions, and the long wet cycle that began in 1993 has steadily pushed the crop westward. Now, it’s grown primarily in western North Dakota and eastern Montana - an arid area where farmers and others say they’re never more than two weeks from a drought.
“Not for us, though. It’s one week here,” Brevik says. Much of the land he farms has light soil that doesn’t hold moisture well, making it even more susceptible to drought and more dependent on timely rains during the growing seasons.
Brevik raises lentils and peas, too, but durum is his main crop.
He hopes to average about 30 bushels of durum overall. The field he’s harvesting on this hot afternoon is running much higher than that.
But this field had enough moisture during the growing season. Many of the fields still to be harvested did not and they’ll most likely fall short - possibly well short - of 30 bushels per acre.

"I wish they all looked like this," Brevik says.

Related Topics: NORTH DAKOTACROPS
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