Bryan Ankenbauer and most other North Dakota durum growers do not give much thought to the notion that their crop likely will end up as a plate of spaghetti in Italy or bowl of couscous in North Africa.
"It certainly isn't the first thought that comes to mind," said Ankenbauer, who grows the grain near Bowbells, in northwestern North Dakota. "I do realize a lot of it goes abroad, but as a farmer, I'm more worried about the quality and price than where it goes."
North Dakota durum growers appear to have dodged disaster this year. The normally finicky crop survived late snowstorms, low temperatures and an early August frost, said Ed Loraas, a farmer and president of the U.S. Durum Growers Association.
Durum from southwestern North Dakota has been fetching anywhere from $3.90 a bushel to more than $5 a bushel in the past month, said Jim Bobb, a grain elevator operator in Gladstone, in southwestern North Dakota. Last year, the price was in the same range -- starting at about $3.20 a bushel when harvest began but winding up at more than $5 a bushel.
North Dakota grows about 70 percent of all U.S. durum, which is used to make semolina flour for pasta. Of the U.S. production, 40 percent is exported to about 20 countries, said Jim Peterson, the marketing director for the North Dakota Wheat Commission.
Italy is the largest importer of U.S. durum, followed by Algeria, Morocco, Nigeria, Switzerland and Egypt.
"A lot of people don't know what goes into making that spaghetti they're eating," said Richard Haugeberg, who has raised durum in Max for 25 years. "I think a lot of people outside of North Dakota would be surprised to know that it comes from here."
The state's harvested durum acreage is projected at 1.7 million acres by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, down from 2 million acres last year, Barth said.
Barth said yields are projected at 32 bushels an acre this year, up slightly from last year, and farmers are expected to harvest about 54 million bushels, down about 4 million bushels from last year.
Barth said durum is grown on about 5,500 of the state's 30,500 farms. It competes for acreage with hard spring wheat, used to make bread. Hard spring wheat is heartier that durum, and farmers typically need premium prices of $1 more a bushel to justify growing durum, Barth said.
The price difference between the two wheat varieties has been about 60 cents. That, combined with the low-carb diet craze and increased production from Canada and other countries, has cut back on durum acres in the past two decades, Barth said.
Until about 20 years ago, North Dakota exported most of its durum crop.
"We were the heartbeat of the world's durum crop back then," Peterson said. "When we had a hiccup, the rest of the world felt it. There are a lot more tempering forces now."
Peterson said the better the durum, the better the pasta. North Dakota consistently produces pasta that is among the world's best, he said.
"We have very strong color and very high protein, and those are attributes that buyers demand. We will always be an important player in the world market," Peterson said.