Durum acres drop; but how much?
Gordon Stoner is making another "act of faith" this crop season. The Outlook, Mont., farmer is planting durum again this spring, even though durum prices aren't attractive and moisture conditions aren't favorable.
"Durum prices just aren't real good. And we're going to need timely rains — regularly and with substantial amounts of precipitation," he says. "I'm still planting it, though.
But some durum farmers in North Dakota and Montana, which combined account for more than 90 percent of U.S. production of the crop, have cut back on acres — or may even switch out of the crop altogether. There's little doubt that durum acreage will decrease, the question is how much.
In late March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service estimated 2018 North Dakota durum acreage at 1 million, down from 1.26 million in 2017, and this year's Montana durum acreage at 850,000, down from 890,000 last year.
Stoner, who farms in northeast Montana where the state's durum is concentrated, said he doesn't expect a sizeable decrease in durum acres in his area. Experienced durum farmers there will continue to plant it, in part because prices of alternative crops aren't particularly attractive, either, he said.
But farmers elsewhere in Montana, who typically raise durum only when its price is attractive, could cut back sharply on the crop, Stoner said.
North Dakota's durum production is concentrated in the northwest part of the state, and farmers there likely will plant less, said Blake Inman, a Berthold, N.D., farmer and first vice president of the U.S. Durum Growers Association.
Some northwest North Dakota farmers have planted — or soon will plant — spring wheat instead of durum because of spring wheat's relatively attractive price, he said.
But estimating how much northwest North Dakota durum acreage will decline is complicated by moisture conditions there, said Jim Peterson, policy and marketing director for the North Dakota Wheat Commission.
Northwest North Dakota, which had been very dry, received late-May rains, raising the possibility of average or better durum yields and potentially leading some farmers to plant durum, Peterson said.
Another consideration: Some farmers in southwest North Dakota could plant more durum if durum acres to the north falls sharply, he said.
Ninety-one percent of North Dakota's projected spring wheat crop was planted as of May 27, according to NASS. Some of the remaining 9 percent possibly could be planted to durum, farmers and others say.
"Durum acres are just hard to get a handle on. There will be less than a year ago, but will it drop as much as USDA said in March? That's hard to say," Peterson said.
Prominent no more
Durum, used to make pasta, was once one of North Dakota's most prominent crops. In 1976 farmers in the state planted 3.7 million acres of it.
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 a long wet cycle in the Upper Midwest led to the crop disease known as scab to occur more often in durum, making it riskier and less attractive to grow than spring wheat.
Today, farmers in eastern and central North Dakota — where durum once was common — rarely grow it. Production of the crop has shifted to western North Dakota and northeast Montana, where relatively arid conditions had held down crop disease. In recent years, however, scab has hurt western North Dakota and eastern Montana durum fields, too.
Because of durum's greater risk, farmers want a higher price, or premium, to grow it instead of spring wheat: at least $1 per bushel and preferably $1.50 to $2 per bushel. But durum's current premium to spring wheat is only 25 to 50 cents per bushel.
That reflects a record 2017 durum crop in Canada, the world's leading durum producer and exporter, and the projection by StatsCan (Canada's national statistical agency) that Canadian farmers will plant about 11 percent more durum acres this year than they did in 2018.
"There seems to a flood of durum in the world right now," Stoner said. "But we have to hope we're going to work our way out of that and prices will improve."