From family dinner tables to fancy restaurants, plates of pasta are likely to be a little pricier in the coming year because of a disappointing durum wheat crop in the northern Plains and Canada.
Durum is ground into the semolina flour used to make pasta products. About half of the nation's durum is produced in North Dakota, where wet weather during spring planting and the fall harvest led to a crop that's more than 4 percent smaller than last year's, and of much poorer quality.
Nationally, the crop is about 8 percent smaller than last year and similar production problems in Canada and Europe brought the global production to its lowest level in 13 years, North Dakota Wheat Commission Marketing Director Jim Peterson said.
"There's not enough (top-end durum) ... for everybody to pursue," he said.
It's led to soaring prices for the best durum, which is bad news for restaurants, particularly family run businesses like The Pasta Shop in Marquette, Michigan, which makes its own noodles. Owner Marc Reilly called the rising price of semolina "a nightmare."
"Ten years ago I paid $8 for a 50-pound bag," he said. "Last week I paid $38.98. It's hard to keep up. I have to pass it on to customers. People think I'm trying to buy a new car, but I'm just trying to keep the doors open."
Pasta is an American food staple, with the average person eating more than 15 pounds each year.
National Pasta Association Executive Director Carol Freysinger says consumers will "see some kind of impact at the grocery store" because of the durum dilemma, but didn't speculate on how severe price increases might be.
Peterson said a price increase likely won't be enough to turn shoppers away from noodles.
"Just because there may be a 50 percent increase in the price of durum, that does not translate to a 50 percent increase in the price of pasta," he said.
Data from the Nielsen company shows rising dry pasta prices in recent years — from a little over a dollar per pound in 2004 to nearly $1.40 in 2011 — hasn't stopped a steady rise in sales.
"Pasta is still a pretty cost-effective piece of the American diet," Freysinger said.
One scenario is that pasta manufacturers will turn to mid-grade durum, which would be less expensive but also would mean a drop in the quality of the pasta, giving it a less-pleasing color or making for gooier noodles.
Durum also is grown in Montana, South Dakota and Idaho, as well as in California and Arizona, where the crop is known as desert durum because arid conditions require irrigation. Experts say there will be more interest than usual in the upcoming desert durum crop, which is planted in December, January and February and harvested in midsummer.
U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics indicate that drought in California did not significantly affect this year's crop, with production down only 6 percent compared to 2013.
North Dakota farmer Russell Doe, who plowed under nearly one-fifth of his durum this year because it wasn't marketable, said he and others aren't giving up on the crop, even though many don't have the top-quality durum that's fetching the high prices.
"I would be really happy if I could average $7 (a bushel), but I don't know if I will," he said.
If the weather cooperates in the spring, the 68-year-old president of the U.S. Durum Growers Association might seed more than usual to make up for this year.
"This year was an exceptionally, exceptionally bad year for weather," he said. "I've talked to 80-year-old guys who say they've never seen anything like this before."
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