Red River Valley contributes to feeding the world

No one knows better than Midwestern farmers that feeding the world is a big job, and the Red River Valley is no exception. North Dakota and Minnesota are ranked among the top producing states in the nation for several crops, according to the 2007...



No one knows better than Midwestern farmers that feeding the world is a big job, and the Red River Valley is no exception.

  North Dakota and Minnesota are ranked among the top producing states in the nation for several crops, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service.

  NDSU Extension Service agent Willie Huot says the demand for higher-protein crops, including North Dakota’s top crops, will continue to be in high demand as the world population grows and reaches for a better diet.

  He says cultures that use to be satisfied with a predominantly rice diet are looking to enrich and diversify their eating habits.


  “It means more soybeans. It means more beef,” he says.

  He says Grand Forks and surrounding counties contribute to feeding this demand by being the most productive part of the state. He says this is primarily because of the rich soils.


  According to the census, North Dakota ranks second in the nation for wheat for grain acres. Minnesota ranks 10th.

  Huot says this primarily includes spring wheat used in flour for baking and some durum, which is used in pasta.

  Of the 5 million acres of wheat planted in North Dakota in 2013, nearly 1 million were in the northeast region of the state. Grand Forks County planted 128,500 acres.

  In 2011, wheat was one of the state’s most valuable crops at $1.7 billion, according to the State Agriculture Overview.



  North Dakota ranks first in barley acres, but Huot says this is primarily in the western part of the state into Montana, and production has declined significantly since the survey was conducted.

  He says in recent years, the price of malt barley, which requires certain protein content, has fallen to meet feed barley prices. Because these prices don’t compete well with other major crops, production has declined, he says.

  In the past 20 years, barley acres in the state have fallen from 2.5 million to 760,000 acres. In 2013, Grand Forks County accounted for 10,700 of those 760,000 acres, according to USDA reports.

  Overall, the 2011 State Agriculture Overview reports that the value of production for barley was $91 million for 16 million bushels.

  Huot says one reason barley grows well in the Upper Midwest, especially Montana and western North Dakota, is the cool climate. He says the crop doesn’t handle heat well and the cool, dry climate works better.


  North Dakota ranks 12th in soybean acres behind Minnesota, which is third, according to the survey, and Huot says the product is mostly exported. China is the largest buyer and makes a diverse range of goods, from food products to plastics.

  “It’s probably the most diverse product we raise,” Huot says.


  USDA reports that North Dakota produced 139 million bushels of soybeans in 2013. Five million of those came from Grand Forks County.

  In 2011, the crop was valued at more than $1 billion, according to the State Agriculture Overview.


  Corn acres in North Dakota ranked ninth in the nation, behind Minnesota, fourth, but this is likely to change, as well.

  Huot says the ethanol mandate in 2006 was a turning point for corn. He says it sparked a dramatic shift toward growing corn because it increased the demand for ethanol.

  But new legislation is moving away from ethanol, causing prices to fall.

  “Corn will be much less profitable in 2014,” he says.

  With prices dropping below production costs, it is no longer profitable for many farmers to continue growing corn.


  In 2011, however, the state’s crop was valued at $1.2 billion, according to the State Agriculture Overview.

  Forty-five percent of the corn farmers grow in North Dakota is used in ethanol. After it is refined into ethanol, the byproduct, called dried distiller’s grains, is packaged and sold as cattle feed.

  Primarily, corn is sent to the west coast and Pacific Rim countries, Huot says. But China is also one of the biggest buyers of North Dakota corn.

  North Dakota planted 3.9 million acres of corn in 2013, according to USDA. Grand Forks County planted 113,500 acres of that.

  Sugar beets

  Minnesota ranks first in the nation for sugar beets with more than 6 million acres, according to the 2007 census. It is not listed among North Dakota’s top crops, likely because most of the production is only on the far east side of the state. Huot says this crop is probably one of the most profitable in the Red River Valley.

  Unlike corn and barley, sugar beet acre numbers largely stay the same year to year because of the way the industry is organized, Huot says.

  Sugar beet farmers in the Grand Forks area formed a co-op to process their beets at American Crystal Sugar Co., a business the co-op owns.


  The 2011 State Agriculture Overview says sugar beet farmers in North Dakota planted 231,000 acres, and produced 4.6 million tons of sugar beets.

  The price of sugar on the world market has dropped this year and will reduce the profit sugar beet farmers will see in 2014.

  Beyond the numbers

  “Agriculture is a really high-risk business,” Huot says.

  He says risk management is the key to staying profitable for farmers.

  Ultimately, sale price is the most important driving factor when farmers select crops to grow, Huot says. But he adds that crop rotation - where crops are alternated season to season to promote soil health, enhance pest and weed resistance and create better yields - is also an important factor.

  Weather patterns are another important consideration. Looking at longrange weather forecasts can help farmers anticipate whether a cool season crop such as barley or a warm season crop such as corn will produce better yields, Huot says. Moisture predictions should also come into play. If a dry year is expected, a crop that requires a large amount of moisture won’t produce well. Anticipating the weather can be a gamble, but accurate predictions can help farmers prosper.

  Farmers also need to consider whether their equipment is appropriate for the crop they are considering. Some crops require special planting or harvesting equipment that would need to be purchased or hired, adding expense to the production process.


  For example, soybeans require an air drill to plant, unlike other popular crops.

  Huot says most small grains require the same equipment, making switching between those crops simpler and less costly for farmers. 

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