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Nothing to write home about but durum is getting second looks

This could be a year when half bad looks pretty decent, and that’s why durum is getting some attention

Pulse acres are expected to drop this year, and while many are predicting a corresponding rise in canola acres, another crop is drumming up some interest among producers.

Durum does well on Keldon Kulyk’s farm in southeast Alberta, but farmers farther north might struggle with the long-season crop.
photo: Supplied

“I’ll be interested to see what happens this year with the possible decrease in pulses that could happen in Canada due to all the tariffs,” said Keldon Kulyk, who farms near Gold Spur in the southeastern part of the province.

“There could be more people looking to grow durum.”

Durum production has been hovering around the one-million-acre mark for the past two years. But in Alberta, areas typically seeded to pulses are also areas where durum does well, and for many producers, it would be a natural alternative.

Market expert Jonathon Driedger is anticipating about a five per cent increase Prairie-wide.

“If we see pulse acres come down a little bit, maybe some of that slides into durum,” said Driedger, a senior market analyst at FarmLink Marketing Solutions.

“We’re not necessarily looking at a huge bump, but certainly not looking for a decrease.”

Durum prices are “a bit meh,” he said in an interview in mid-January.

Large ending stocks from 2016 carried over into 2017, which led to a smaller crop last year, but a high-quality one. Blending it with lower-quality 2016 stock means there’s adequate supply, with prices reflecting that.

“Buyers don’t necessarily have to show a huge amount of urgency,” said Driedger. “Prices aren’t awful, but they’re certainly down a little bit from what farmers have had in recent years for better-quality durum.”

However, it’s all relative — pretty much every grain and pulse market is well supplied. By that standard, durum prices aren’t bad.

“Durum may not be blowing your hair back on prices, but relative to the alternatives, it still looks better than the other options for these farms,” he said. “It’s really going to vary individually by farm. There are areas where, if it’s between spring wheat and durum, it will come down to yield expectation.”

Production risks

For Kulyk, it’s price.

“Durum is one that’s always done well out here,” said Kulyk, whose father began growing the crop in the 1970s.

“It’s drier and usually hotter, too. With those conditions and timely rains, durum has always seemed to do pretty well on most of our soils.”

While yields are similar to spring wheat, prices are usually 50 cents to $1 higher — although it’s hardly a windfall.

“Prices are not always what you want them to be, and if you factor in paying for trucking, it starts to impact what profit you can actually make,” said Kulyk, whose nearest grain elevator is 70 kilometres away.

“If we can manage to store some of our higher quality and sell at a later date, we’ll probably plan for that.”

Nevertheless, he grows durum every year, and expects to seed 1,400 acres to the crop this spring (compared to 1,000 last year).

Producers with the same idea better be ready for some risk. Durum is one of Kulyk’s earliest-seeded crops, taking roughly 110 days to reach maturity. He can usually get in the field by the middle of April but in other parts of the province, it gets a bit squeaky.

“The growing season is short, and the last couple of years, people have barely been able to get their crop off,” he said. “Five to 10 days can be all the difference come harvest time in specific areas.”

If you grow it, don’t get too hung up on price, said Driedger.

“It seems like durum is one of those crops that producers have an emotional attachment to,” he said. “If farmers grow good-quality durum, they want a good price for it.”

Prices could change a fair bit between now and seeding, he said, and until the crop gets in the ground, it will be hard to say whether dry conditions in the province (if they last) will be good or bad.

At this point, the outcome isn’t looking “super bullish.”

“There are some factors that might give a more favourable outlook going forward, so I think we need to have our antenna up as to whether our outlook might change,” said Driedger.

“There are enough unknowns that we don’t want to assume that the outcome is just going to be more of the same.”

Just have realistic expectations, he added.

“If we have another big crop, we need to make sure price expectations are in line and take advantage of opportunities accordingly.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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