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Grow better durum

Developing durum varieties with improved disease resistance
and superior milling and pasta quality is the goal of Dakota Growers Pasta
Company, Inc. (DGPC). The new varieties are intended to help regional growers
stay competitive and to continue supplying DGPC with top-quality durum.

The Carrington, North Dakota-based firm buys milling-grade
durum primarily from producers in North Dakota and Montana. The resulting pasta
products go to U.S. grocery stores and other food-service outlets. DGPC also
exports some products to Canada.

But procuring good-quality durum hasn’t always been easy.
After DGPC was founded in 1992, Fusarium head blight, or scab, invaded the
region, rearranging the durum industry’s prospects.

“Fusarium head blight devastated the durum crop in northeast
and central North Dakota,” says Brad Miller, DGPC research agronomist.

The firm built a multimillion-dollar processing facility in
Carrington in 1993, when it was a producer-owned cooperative. The co-op
intended to purchase durum within a 60-mile radius of the plant.

“But shortly after the plant was built, the region started
getting wetter in midsummer, and Fusarium head blight began showing up in the
durum,” says Miller. “Durum doesn’t tolerate head blight.”

Many area durum growers switched to hard red spring wheat.
Durum acres shifted to western North Dakota and eastern Montana, but arid
conditions in these areas significantly lowered production.

New varietal development

To combat the problem of diminished supply and high
transportation costs, DGPC implemented its own research and
varietal-development program. The goal was to develop varieties adapted to the
traditional durum-growing area in north-eastern and central North Dakota.

Recently released varieties DG Star (released in 2007) and
DG Max  (released in 2008) show
particular promise in tolerance to scab as well as in yielding high-quality
durum.

“Of all the varieties available to durum growers today, DG
Star has the best Fusarium tolerance,” says Miller. “The growers who have grown
it for me are pleased with the variety’s performance. We’ve had good results
with it, and it makes very high-quality pasta.

“The most recently released variety, DG Max, is higher
yielding than DG Star with a slightly lower level of Fusarium tolerance,”
Miller adds. “Its pasta-quality attributes are not as strong as Star’s, but
they’re better than those of most other varieties.”

Primo Dora and Grande Doro are two earlier varieties DGPC
released in cooperation with WestBred, LLC.

Both varieties have good pasta-making attributes, and Grande
Doro is particularly high yielding, given good growing conditions. “If you
intensively manage Grande Doro to control Fusarium head blight, it’ll yield
well and produce a product we can use at the plant,” says Miller.

Another goal of the DGPC breeding program is to develop
durum varieties with improved protein quality. “Protein quality is what creates
firmness to the bite in the pasta,” says Miller. “Pasta made from durum with
good protein quality doesn’t get mushy with overcooking. This attribute is
important to food-service customers.

“We can measure protein quality at our plant, and DG Star is
superior over other varieties,” says Miller.

Cooperative to C corporation

While DGPC was founded as a producer-owned cooperative, it
later became a C corporation.

“Farmers no longer have to be shareholders in order to
deliver durum to the plant,” says Miller. The company does, however, give
Series D preferred stock shareholders priority when making contracting
allotments.

“The breeding program and the contracting program are tied
in that producers entering production contracts with the company must agree to
grow one of the durum varieties we’ve developed,” says Miller.

Pasta powers ahead

While national economic woes take a toll on many
manufacturing businesses, pasta processing is going great guns.

“The demand for pasta is actually rising as a result of the
recession,” says U.S. Durum Growers Association (USDGA) past president Jim
Diepolder, Willow City, North Dakota. “People have rediscovered pasta as they
look for ways to have good home-cooked meals.”

Retail sales of pasta grew by 2% last year, says Diepolder.

Since pasta is derived from durum wheat, that’s good news
for durum growers. Increased demand is only one ingredient, however, needed to
strengthen the nation’s durum industry, which is a fraction of its former size. 

“The U.S. used to be a big exporter of durum, with 5 million
acres in production,” says Diepolder. “In recent years, that acreage dropped to
1.3 million.” Not all of those acres will produce durum of milling quality,
either.

Historically, 80% to 90% of the nation’s durum is grown in
North Dakota and Montana. But last year, Arizona’s harvest yielded 30 million
bushels.

In the final analysis, the U.S. is dependent upon imported
durum, says Diepolder. If such a trend continues, this country’s pasta
processors may fall by the wayside, too.

Two ways to boost durum acres

The USDGA aims to reverse the U.S. acreage decline and put
the U.S. durum industry back on the map. It’s working to legislate change in
two areas.

1. Crop insurance. “Right now, we’re trying to get adequate
crop insurance for durum,” says Diepolder. “The present crop insurance program
doesn’t recognize the historical price premium durum commands in the
marketplace.”

2. Fungicide cost-sharing. Implementing a program called the
Durum Quality Protection Act is proposed by the USDGA. It’s a cost-share
program to help growers spray fungicide on durum to better protect the domestic
crop.

“We’re hoping that implementing these changes will reduce
some of the cost of production and risk associated with raising durum, thus
making durum more attractive to growers,” says Larry Neubauer, a Bottineau,
North Dakota, farmer and USDGA president. 

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