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Durum decline continues in region

GRAND FORKS -- Durum, once one of North Dakota and northeast Montana's most important crops, continues to lose popularity with farmers in the two states.

North Dakota farmers will plant only 1.1 million acres of the crop this spring, down from 1.34 million acres in 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates.

Farmers in Montana will plant an estimated 480,000 acres, down from 520,000 acres last year, USDA says.

Nationwide, 2013 durum acreage will decline to 1.75 million from 2.1 million in 2012, USDA predicts.

The acreage decline was expected, says Keith Deutsch, a Plaza, farmer and past president of the U.S. Durum Growers Association.

"Durum prices just aren't receiving enough of a premium to spring wheat," he says.

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 that the price of spring wheat

Currently, durum only has about a 4-cent-per-bushel premium over spring wheat, according to a survey by Agweek magazine.

But as Deutsch notes, durum can be insured under the federal crop insurance program this growing season for substantially more than the price at which spring wheat can be insured.

"That can make a difference" in farmers' willingness to grow durum, he says.

Durum can be insured at $9.64 per bushel, compared with $8.44 per bushel for spring wheat, according to the website of U.S. Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency, which administers federal crop insurance.

USDA's acreage projection is just an estimate. The number of durum acres actually planted could be higher or lower.

A late spring could encourage farmers to plant a little more durum and a bit less spring wheat.

Late-planted durum generally holds up better than late-planted spring wheat in summer heat, and late planting also can help hold down crop disease in durum, Deutsch says.

But there's still plenty of time to plant spring wheat, and it's premature to speculate on how much additional durum might be planted, he says.

North Dakota farmers planted a record 5.5 million durum acres in 1928. If USDA is right, only one acre of the crop will be planted this year for every five acres of durum planted in 1928.

In 2000, North Dakota planted 3.25 million acres of durum, or roughly three acres for each acre that USDA anticipates will be planted this year.

Over the past decade, however, greater interest in alternative crops has cut sharply into durum acreage.

Durum, once grown across most of North Dakota, now is grown primarily in the northwest part of the state, where the climate is most suited to the crop.

The 1.1 million acres of durum in the state that USDA anticipates this year would be the second-lowest annual total since the 980,000 acres planted in 1959.

North Dakota farmers planted only 750,000 acres of durum in 2011. But that reflects an extremely wet spring in much of northwest North Dakota, which reduced the amount of durum that otherwise would have been planted in 2011.