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Cold Rush: Corn Belt's Northern Prairies of Canada & ND

DANIEL LOOKER 09/03/2014 @ 2:18pm Business Editor

On a June drive from Grand Forks, North Dakota, to the Canadian border, dawn light glints from shiny new grain bins scattered along the northern Red River Valley. 

This bright frontier for corn helped the state double the crop’s size in a decade – even after a long winter, dismal corn prices, and the soggiest spring since 1995 made farmers plant 800,000 fewer acres than in 2013. North Dakota’s 103% 10-year growth in corn acres still tops all other states. 

At Northwood, a few miles from Grand Forks, Rick Ostlie didn’t grow corn at all until 2006, even though he pioneered local soybean farming in 1980. His son, Richie, urged them to start.

“I told my son, if we’re going to get into corn, we need the infrastructure to match our acreage,” says Ostlie, who is past president of the American Soybean Association. That first year, they grew 80 acres; by last year, they were at 2,450 acres. They added drying in 2007 and storage each year. This year, they’ve cut back to 2,050 (with more acres in beans) on a farm that also includes his son-in-law, Tom Metz. 

The good years helped pay for their 300,000 bushels of storage. Today, after railcar shortages drove the winter basis over $1 below futures and with costly commercial drying, “if we didn’t have the infrastructure in place, I’m not sure we could make a profit at $3.00 corn,” he says.

Will it stick?

To the southwest, near Carrington, North Dakota, Dave Swanson has grown corn since 1978. Once a durum wheat area, a more humid climate favors corn. During the recent boom, “with cash rents going up, a lot of guys had to do corn just to compete,” says Swanson, who sells seed for DuPont Pioneer. “Guys invested in their bins and driers and equipment, and that’s an investment that’s going to make corn stick. I hope so, anyway.”

Some will. Perhaps not all. North Dakota State University (NDSU) economist Frayne Olson lists at least eight other crops that compete well with corn and soybeans, including canola, flax, and dry beans.

“When the world doesn’t need more corn, we can switch back pretty quickly,” he says. Soybeans, which cost less to grow, have expanded faster than corn, which has been uneven.

The now-missing $6 corn prices helped drive the boom. The other factor is yields that make Swanson’s seed appeal to his neighbors.

“We do grow 200-bushel corn every year to the Canadian border in small plots,” says Zach Fore, a DuPont Pioneer agronomist working in the state. Growers in Swanson’s area shoot for 150. 

Dan Sletten, a young farmer west of Grand Forks, has seen yields rise from 110 bushels when he started 10 years ago. “I like to plan on getting in the neighborhood of 140. It can be higher than that; typically, it’s lower,” he says. All that is above the state average of 110 last year and 122 in 2012.

Public research led yield gains. For 15 years, corn breeder Marcelo Carena of NDSU has pushed yields on early-maturing varieties. 

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