The U.S. durum industry has faced major challenges in recent years. But the 2020 crop season is one that many durum growers will look back on favorably, a durum official said.
"There were some things that happened this year," said Blake Inman, president of the U.S. Durum Growers Association. He's a Berthold, N.D., farmer and co-owner of a grain and seed company.
North Dakota and Montana dominate U.S. production of durum. The crop also is grown on irrigated land in the southwest United States as so-called Desert Durum.
Near the top of durum growers' things-to-be-thankful list: Strong consumer demand for durum, which is used to make pasta, because of the coronavirus pandemic. Pasta is quick and easy to make and stores well, making it extra attractive to consumers who are eating out less and eating at home more, Inman said.
About two-thirds of U.S. durum is used domestically, while the other third is exported to 15 different countries around the world. Italy and Algeria are typically the two largest U.S. durum markets. Export demand also appears to be holding up well, even though Canada, the world's leading durum exporter, had a good crop this year, Inman said.
It's especially important for durum demand to be strong this year because U.S. production of the crop rose 28% from 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Crop Production report issued in mid-November.
That increase reflects a big jump in both planted and harvested acres in 2020 from the previous year. In 2019, 1.34 million acres of durum were planted and 1.17 million were harvested. This year, about 1.68 million acres were planted and 1.66 million acres were harvested.
But the increase in acres was partially offset by reduced yields nationwide: from 45.8 bushels per acre last year to 41.4 bushels per acre this year. The 2020 average yield, though still considered relatively strong, was held down by poor yields in much of the region's key durum-growing area, Inman said.
On the other hand, the quality of this year's crop — quality always is important for durum — generally was good, Inman said.
Durum once was one of North Dakota's most prominent crops. The crop fares best with cool summer nights, long warm days and a dry harvest — conditions that normally occur in much of the region. But the long wet cycle that began in 1993 prompted the spread of a disease called scab in durum, making the crop riskier and less attractive to grow than spring wheat. As a result, farmers typically want a premium — at least $1 and preferably $2 per bushel — to grow durum instead of spring wheat. Currently, the durum premium is about 50 cents per bushel.
Because spring wheat prices weren't attractive this spring, some farmers planted more durum, Inman said.
Today, durum is what's called a "minor" or "niche" crop, with corn and soybeans picking up many of the acres once planted to durum. Call it a "minor" crop. Durum production now is concentrated in northwestern North Dakota and northeastern Montana, where the generally arid climate is less conducive to scab outbreaks. Even so, scab has badly hurt durum in those two areas in some recent years.
It's too early to predict how much durum might be planted next year, especially since there's reason to think spring wheat prices might strengthen next year. Also, the traditional decision to plant either spring wheat or durum is losing some of its importance as some farmers now may plant oilseeds or other crops instead of spring wheat or durum, Inman said.