Wet growing season could send pasta prices upby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Wet conditions across the upper Midwest could lead to higher pasta prices at the grocery store.
Pasta is made from durum wheat, and two-thirds of durum in the United States is produced in North Dakota, where supplies are expected to be tight. Fields have had more rain than is optimal in this growing season, which means farmers will see a lower quality crop and a tighter supply. U.S. Durum production is the lowest it's been in 50 years.
Manufacturers need high-quality durum to make semolina flour, which is critical for good pasta, said Frank Manthey, who runs the durum pasta quality research program at North Dakota State University in Fargo, N.D.
Consumers want the yellow color durum gives finished pasta, not the pale washed out look of pasta made from other wheat varieties, Manthey said.
Durum makes the best spaghetti because semolina flour makes noodles that cook better, have that classic yellow color and are more flavorful than other kinds of wheat.
"To get really high quality is going to be a lot more difficult this year," Manthey said. "Less acres (harvested) and probably a higher percentage of poor material to work with."
North Dakota farmers planted an estimated one million acres of durum this year. That's about 40 percent less than last year. Much of the crop was planted late, and means a late harvest, Manthey said.
"A lot of the crop probably will be harvested in September," he said. "And historically, recently anyway, September has been a damp month, either with rainfall or high humidity. And both of those reduce grain quality."
Wet weather is also affecting Canadian durum crops in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Canada, the worlds top durum producer. Italy and the United States are the next-highest producers.
As in North Dakota, bad weather in Canada sends pasta makers scrambling to find a high quality durum, said Frayne Olson, a NDSC crop marketing specialist. He said the dearth of supply will affect the bottom line of the pasta companies.
"They are very concerned right now," Olson said. "They're trying their best to buy up existing inventories so they have some reserves just in case it's a short crop or we have additional problems."
Pasta companies did not respond to interview requests for this story. But Olson said consumers can expect higher prices for noodles in the grocery store.
"So if you go to the store and buy spaghetti or lasagna noodles and make your own and bake it at home you'll probably see some increasing prices in those products," he said. "Will they be dramatic? Probably not. But we will see some upward pressure in pasta prices."
Olson expects there to be less price impact on prepared pasta dishes or meals purchased in restaurants.
Manthey, pasta quality expert, said some companies might blend other wheat varieties with durum to save money on noodles used in prepared dishes where consumers might not notice the change in quality.
That's led to intense competition among pasta makers to find the best fields of durum.
Many pasta companies are trying to identify areas where growing conditions have been fairly good. They'll be watching those regions very closely and will try to lock in contracts for some of that grain even before it is harvested.
Farmers can expect a premium price for high quality durum this fall. But there's no guarantee that the crop that looks good now will keep its quality through a later-than-usual harvest, Manthey said.
"If you go to the store and buy spaghetti or lasagna noodles and make your own and bake it at home you'll probably see some increasing prices in those products," he said. "Will they be dramatic? Probably not. But we will see some upward pressure in pasta prices."
- Morning Edition, 08/09/2011, 7:25 a.m.