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Published October 24, 2011, 11:38 PM

As corn acreage increases, so does economic impact on region

ULEN, Minn. – At the West Central Ag terminal, the grain trucks roll in from the fields every 10 or 15 minutes, dumping their loads of corn.

By: Dave Olson and Helmut Schmidt, Forum staff writers, INFORUM

ULEN, Minn. – At the West Central Ag terminal, the grain trucks roll in from the fields every 10 or 15 minutes, dumping their loads of corn.

The kernels pour out of the semi hoppers like molten gold, which, for the Red River Valley, corn has become as farmers devote more acres to the grain.

Recently, West Central Ag’s Ulen site set a record of 486 semi-truckloads of corn dumped in one day, eclipsing the 440 trucks of soybeans dumped one day last fall, terminal manager Dave Gravdal said.

To the east of the terminal, a massive, golden pile grows – between 800,000 and 1 million bushels of corn. There’s nowhere else to put the harvest.

“It’s considerably more this year than last year,” Gravdal said of the corn harvest. “It’s the money – the bushels per acre and the dollars per bushel.”

In Minnesota, corn is the top crop, but it’s also making gains in North Dakota – an increasingly valuable commodity that can have a big impact in area towns.

North Dakota farmers planted about 2.3 million acres to corn this year, twice the amount planted in 2000 and triple what was planted in 1993.

“It’s certainly growing; we’ve consistently been over 2 million acres the last few years,” said Joel Ransom, North Dakota State University agronomist.

In Minnesota, acres planted to corn have spiked higher thanks to strong prices, said Jeffrey Coulter, a corn agronomist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

Coulter said about 8.1 million acres of corn were planted this year, up from 7.7 million acres last year.

About 7.2 million acres of soybeans were planted in Minnesota this year, the second most-planted crop in the state.

The dollars generated by corn and other crops are making an impact on Main Street.

At Legend Seeds in Hitterdal, the orders have been coming in for seed corn since August. Head of distribution and sales for Legend Seeds Tony Gigler said the spending by corn farmers trickles down.

“Everybody benefits from it. The real test is to watch the implement dealers, auto dealers,” he said.

“Business has definitely been good,” said Jason Jalbert, general manager of Muscatell Burns Ford Center in Hawley. He expects business to pick up in November and December as farmers get a better idea of their finances.

At Hawley’s RDO Equipment store, “it’s been busy” through the harvest, store manager Steve Martin said. “Very active.”

Dave Altenbernd, a vice president at Northwestern Bank in Ulen, said land sales and rents are up, too.

Across the street, Braseth Sales and Construction is doing well. Owner Rudy Braseth said the demand has been high for storage bins to handle the expanding corn crop.

“We’re pretty much turning down work,” he said.

Ransom said the reasons for corn’s popularity are manifold, with rising demand from the ethanol industry and the resulting boost in price a major one.

Yield is another.

“Certainly there’s higher yield potential in corn,” Ransom said. “It is two to three times higher yielding than wheat in the same environment.”

Corn’s resistance to stressors like pests and disease, partially the result of improved hybrids, also makes it attractive to growers, Ransom said.

While corn yields are higher than those for wheat, corn’s historically lower price has been a negative, though that is changing with corn prices recently in the neighborhood of $7 a bushel.

“It (corn) used to be about half as valuable as wheat, so you had to get twice the yield to stay even on gross returns,” Ransom said.

“But recently, corn has been kind of catching up to wheat on price,” he said.

Coulter said the swelling corn production in the Red River Valley, where wheat has long been dominant, is largely due to economics.

“With $7 corn, it’s difficult to justify it (staying with wheat),” Coulter said.

Both Coulter and Ransom say corn’s qualities make it a good choice when it comes to crop rotation, and it gets along particularly well with soybeans.

Darrin Anderson, a Valley City, N.D., farmer and president of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association, said that over the last decade he has seen many farmers in the Barnes County area switch from wheat to corn and he expects more growers in the state to do the same.

He said the only limiting factors for corn in North Dakota are whether the crop gets enough moisture in the west and cooler temperatures and shorter growing season in the northern part of the state.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583 and Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555