'Weird' but good year for durum
With harvest entering the home stretch, North Dakota and Montana durum growers generally are pleased with yields.
"It was a weird year. But I'm happy with how things turned out," said Doug Opland, a Des Lacs farmer and president of the United States Durum Growers Association.
There's concern, however, about the quality of still-to-be-harvested durum. There's also some disappointment over prices.
"Prices probably are a bit lower than producers had anticipated based on reduced acres," said Jim Peterson, marketing director of the North Dakota Wheat Commission.
He also notes that yields are higher than anticipated, helping offset the lower-than-hoped-for prices.
An extremely wet spring cut into durum acreage in North Dakota, the nation's leading durum producer. Fewer planted acres led to hopes of higher prices at harvest.
But a big durum crop in Canada and good U.S. durum yields worked against prices for the crop, officials say.
North Dakota farmers planted an estimated 850,000 acres of durum this year, down from 1.34 million acres last year, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"It's been a good season this year, but I think you're going to continue to see durum acres fall in 2014," said Southwest Grain agronomist Chris Binstock. "You can talk milling quality but pricing is, and is going to continue to be, the big deal around here."
In Montana, farmers planted an estimated 510,000 acres this year, down from 520,000 acres a year ago. Much of Montana's durum is grown in the northeast corner of the state.
Combined, the two states account for nearly 90 percent of U.S. durum acreage this year.
Some in the grain industry think fewer durum acres were planted than NASS estimates. If that's true, durum prices could get a boost.
Everyone agrees, however, that cool summer weather boosted durum yields.
Yields vary greatly in Montana, with excellent yields in some areas and poor yields in areas hit by hail and other weather problems, said Milo Mattelin, a Culbertson, Mont., farmer.
On balance, "Yields are above average," he said.
Opland said he wasn't optimistic in June, when many durum fields were still being planted.
"Usually a late crop that's seeded in June doesn't turn out very good. Actually, this year, the later crop is better than the very first stuff seeded," Opland said.
"What happened this year is the exact opposite of what usually happens," he said.
Mark Martinson, a Rolette farmer, said his durum yields were comparable to those in 2012, which was a good year for durum.
He and other farmers say the quality of their harvested durum generally is good.
A late harvest
Because durum was planted so late, an unusually large amount of it remains to be harvested.
As of Sept. 23, 75 percent of North Dakota's durum was harvested, compared with an average of 85 percent, according to NASS.
Northern North Dakota and northeast Montana have been hit with showers recently, delaying harvest of the remaining durum.
Further delays, and more rain, could hurt the durum's quality and lead to discounts, or price reductions.
"There's real concern about quality," said Gordon Stoner, an Outlook, Mont., farmer. Nearly half of his durum wasn't harvested by late September.
Cooler temperatures and shorter days in late September and early October complicate harvest, especially when grain is wet, he said.
"We'll get it though," Stoner said of harvesting his remaining durum.
Stoner and others say a week of dry, warm weather would allow them to harvest most, if not all, of their remaining durum.
Durum, used for pasta, is riskier to grow than spring wheat, which is used for bread. So farmers typically are reluctant to grow durum unless its price is substantially higher than the price of spring wheat.
This spring, durum provided a premium of only 4 cents per bushel over spring wheat at area grain elevators surveyed weekly by Agweek.
Now, durum provides a premium of about 50 cents per bushel over spring wheat at those grain elevators.
Durum farmers say that while they naturally welcome a higher premium, it probably isn't big enough to offset the greater risk of growing the crop.