North Dakota durum fetching high prices, posting record yields; worldwide production down

By James Macpherson, AP
Thursday, October 7, 2010

ND durum fetching high prices, record yields

BISMARCK, N.D. — Cool, wet weather at planting and again at harvest means North Dakota farmers still are out in the fields and few days behind getting durum, which is used to make semolina flour for pasta, in the bin.

North Dakota’s durum harvest, the nation’s biggest, typically is done by October. But the crop that has come in is fetching surprisingly high prices and reaping record yields.

North Dakota produces about 70 percent of all U.S. durum. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the state’s harvest will jump from last year’s 61.2 million bushels to 70.3 million bushels, or enough to make nearly 24 billion servings of spaghetti.

The state’s harvested durum acreage is projected at 1.8 million acres, up about 150,000 acres from last year. The estimated average yield of 39.5 bushels per acre is an all-time high and a half-bushel above last year’s record.

The federal government’s yield estimates are probably conservative, said Larry Neubauer, who farms near Bottineau and serves as president of the U.S. Durum Growers Association.

“Personally, from what I’ve seen out in the field, our yields are much higher than that,” he said.

On his farm in north central North Dakota, Neubauer has seen 67-bushel yields. Some neighboring farmers have recorded unheard of 80-bushel-per-acre hauls, he said.

“The crop is yielding very good and the higher yields have surprised us a little bit,” said Jim Peterson, the marketing director for the North Dakota Wheat Commission.

North Dakota durum is known for its high content of protein and gluten, which gives dough its tough elastic quality.

Peterson and Neubauer said some of the state’s durum this year from high-yielding fields has come in at lower quality than normal.

“In record-type yield years, you sometimes give up some in quality categories,” Peterson said.

High quality North Dakota durum is fetching up to $7 a bushel, or at least $2.50 more than expected, Neubauer said.

Decreased global production has helped push prices for quality durum, Neubauer and Peterson said.

“Worldwide, there is more demand for high-quality durum than there has been,” Peterson said.

U.S. durum production is pegged at 111 million bushels this year, up from 109 million in 2009, Peterson said. About a third of U.S. production is exported. Worldwide production is expected at 1.3 billion bushels, down from a record 1.5 billion bushels last year, he said.

Production in Canada, the world’s biggest durum exporter, is estimated at 115 million to 120 million bushels, down from nearly 200 million bushels last year, Peterson said. Cool, wet weather cut durum acres nearly 40 percent this year, though the country has strong stocks on hand from last year, he said.

Italy is the largest importer of North Dakota and U.S. durum, followed by Algeria, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia, Germany and Spain.

Neubauer said a trade team from North African countries visited his farm and others in the region last month to look over the crop. The countries mostly use North Dakota durum to make couscous.

“They made it very clear that North Dakota durum production is very important to them,” Neubauer said. “And they liked what they saw.”

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