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KNUTSON: An old friend fades away

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- I often talk with farmers and ranchers who serve in organizations that promote the crops and livestock they raise. The producers invariably say good things about their commodity -- mainly because they believe in it, but also ...

Durum
Durum wheat - istockphoto.com

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - I often talk with farmers and ranchers who serve in organizations that promote the crops and livestock they raise. The producers invariably say good things about their commodity - mainly because they believe in it, but also because they represent it. Makes sense to me: I'm an officer of North American Agricultural Journalists. If you ask me about ag journalism, I'll say good things - mainly because I really believe in it, but also because I represent it.

So talking with farmers who lead the U.S. Durum Growers Association is like taking a trip into the Twilight Zone. Oh, they promote durum and pasta, into which the crop is made. But utterly unlike other commodity group leaders, they wonder openly and publicly if raising their crop still makes economic sense.

If you're familiar with ag, you know durum has deep roots in the Upper Midwest, especially North Dakota. The crop does best with cool summer nights, long warm days, adequate but not excessive rain and a dry harvest - conditions that normally occur in much of the region.

But South Dakota and Minnesota farmers moved away from durum years ago, reflecting new, improved varieties of corn and soybeans. This year, South Dakota producers planted a mere 4,000 acres of the crop. Minnesota's 2016 durum acreage was so small the U.S. Department of Agriculture didn't even report it.

In North Dakota, planted durum acreage has fallen from 3.7 million in 1976 to 1.3 million this year, with corn and soybeans picking up many of those acres. That reflects the rise of scab, a crop disease that can produce vomitoxin in grain and devastate durum.

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The region's long wet cycle has boosted scab, and most farmers in eastern and central North Dakota - where durum once was common - decided years ago the risk was too great. That pushed the crop into the western part of the state, which typically receives less rain and traditionally is less susceptible to scab. Relatively dry eastern Montana also picked up durum acres. This year, North Dakota and Montana farmers accounted for nearly 2 million of the 2.1 million U.S. durum acres.

Though I cover many crops and enjoy them all, durum is a favorite of mine. We grew it on my family farm in central North Dakota, and its amber color and milling quality unpredictability appealed to me. But durum hasn't been grown on the farm for many years and won't be again anytime soon, if ever.

I'll continue to write about durum, but following its decline is painful. It's like watching an old friend fade away.

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