Small-market crops bounce back

This was supposed to be a bounceback year for some of the Upper Midwest's lesser-known crops. Despite a few surprises, primarily with soybeans, a widely watched report indicates that's exactly what happened. As expected, farmers this spring plant...

This was supposed to be a bounceback year for some of the Upper Midwest’s lesser-known crops. Despite a few surprises, primarily with soybeans, a widely watched report indicates that’s exactly what happened.

As expected, farmers this spring planted more durum, barley, flax and sunflowers - crops in which the Upper Midwest, particularly North Dakota, leads the nation, the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says in its June 30 planted acreage report.

By and large, “The report confirms what the trade (grain industry) expected,” says Frayne Olson, crops economist and marketing specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service. “This sets the stage for the rest of the year.”

Nationwide, U.S. farmers planted 2 percent less corn, 1 percent less wheat and 2 percent more soybeans than in 2014, NASS says. That’s in line with the advance thinking that poor corn prices would encourage farmers to look closer at other crops.


As the national estimates show, soybeans were one of the beneficiaries, with a record 85.1 million acres. Minnesota reflects the national trend, with soybean acreage rising to 7.7 million from 7.35 million in 2014.

But soybean acreage unexpectedly fell in both South Dakota and North Dakota, according to the NASS report.

South Dakota’s decline - to 5.15 million acres from 5.20 million acres  in 2014 - perplexes David Iverson, an Astoria, S.D., farmer and long-time leader of his state’s soybean industry.

“That was surprising to me,” says Iverson, who also raises corn.“The economics favored soybeans (over corn).”

South Dakota corn acreage fell to 5.2 million from 5.8 million last year, according to NASS.

The estimate of planted soybean acres also surprised Frayne Olson, crops economist and marketing specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

NASS says 5.8 million acres of soybeans were planted in North Dakota this year, down from 5.9 million in 2014.

“I was expecting to see that number to be higher,” Olson says.


Corn acres in North Dakota, which had been rising for years, held steady at 2.8 million - a reflection of its relatively unattractive prices

Minnesota’s corn acreage stayed even at 8.2 million. Ag officials in Minnesota said previously they didn’t expect a big decline in corn acreage, noting 2014 acreage was held down by wet conditions in part of the state.

The NASS report offered a mixed bag for spring wheat, the region’s third major crop. Estimated acreage of the crop this year rose substantially in South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota and fell sharply in Montana.

South Dakota spring wheat acreage this year is pegged at 1.42 million, up from 1.3 million in 2014. North Dakota farmers planted 6.3 million acres, up from 6.25 million last year, with Minnesota growers planting 1.65 million acres, up from 1.3 million in 2014.

A relatively early start to planting this year encouraged some farmers to go with more wheat, the first of the region’s major crops to be planted. That also might help explain why more soybeans weren’t planted in the Dakotas, ag officials say.

Small-market crops rally The 2014 downturn in crop prices caused Upper Midwest farmers to  reassess small-market crops, and  that’s reflected in the estimated acreage increase in  crops such as durum, barley and flax.

A bounceback in planted acreage of small-acreage crops also was expected because the unusually wet spring in 2014 hampered planting a year ago, ag officials say.

Durum, of which North Dakota is the nation’s leading producer, was planted this year on 1.1 million acres in the state, up from 840,000 acres last year.


“We expected an increase. If anything, we thought it might have been a little bigger (than what NASS estimates),” says Ryan Davidson, a Tioga, N.D., farmer and first vice president of the U.S. Durum Growers Association.

Historically, North Dakota farmers have planted more than 1 million acres of durum annually. That number has fallen in recent years, but this year’s total will “get us back to what we’ve normally been,” he says.

Durum is a little riskier to grow than some other crops, so farmers usually want a higher price to grow it. That premium was high enough this past winter and spring to prompt more farmers to grow it, Olson says.

Farmers in Montana, which accounts for about a third of U.S. durum acreage, planted an estimated 630,000 acres of the crop, up from 435,000 acres last year.

More barley

Planted acres of barley nationwide soared to an estimated 2 million from 1.4 million acres a year ago.

North Dakota acreage rose to 900,000 from 620,000 a year ago, with Montana acreage increasing to 1.1 million from 920,000 a year ago. Production of the crop is concentrated in North Dakota and northeast Montana, where the climate favors it.

Relatively strong prices for barley, coupled with relatively weak prices for some other crops, encouraged North Dakota farmers to plant more of the crop this year, says Steve Edwardson, executive director of the state Barley Council.


More sunflowers and flax, too U.S. sunflower acreage rose to estimated 1.8 million from 1.56 million last year.

Leading the way were North Dakota’s estimated increase to 710,000 acres this year from 665,000 acres in 2014 and South Dakota’s estimated increase to 600,000 acres this year from 535,000 acres in 2014.

Dry conditions this spring encouraged some Upper Midwest farmers to plant sunflowers, which hold up relatively well in drought.

U.S. flax acreage this year is estimated at 420,000 acres, up from 311,000 a year ago. North Dakota’s estimated increase - to 390,000 acres this year from 275,000 a year ago - was responsible.


What To Read Next
Get Local