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Growing Durum In The Desert

We wandered down to Arizona for a few days in February. I heard a rumour that they grow durum in Arizona — lots of it. I found this very intriguing as most years I have a hard time growing durum in Saskatchewan, let alone trying to grow it in the desert. This gave me something to investigate while the boss (my wife Sheila) was finding it out if there were any good sales in Phoenix.

I made a few calls and was lucky enough to meet Austin Orcutt at Arizona Grain Inc. I thought I might ask him a few questions over the phone. Instead we ended up having a great Mexican lunch together and then he gave me a tour that lasted over two hours. I found out that Desert Durum is the trademarked name of the durum wheat grown in Arizona and California. Tests have shown that it has better milling qualities than the durum wheat we grow here. (Check out www.desertdurum. com online for more information).

I met Austin at his office in Casa Grande, about 40 minutes south of Phoenix. Their company is the largest of four grain companies in Arizona with over 70 full time employees at four locations. They have a 75 car loading spot, their own locomotive, a feed mill as well as cleaning and treating facilities for the seed they buy and sell. Durum is one crop they handle as well as barley, milo, corn and alfalfa. Spring wheat is not grown very much in the area due to disease problems.

Desert Durum is the name for several varieties of durum wheat developed specifically for the area. Four of the varieties were developed by Austin’s grandfather Dr. Albert Carleton. These varieties are grown under contract, and Arizona Grain buys all of the crop. Farmers cannot keep their own seed to re-plant.

Farms in the Casa Grande area are an average of 1,500 to 2,000 acres. With double cropping on some fields as well as 12 months of good weather, a farm this size is a lot of work. The average farmer in this area of Arizona is more of a farm manager running the farm from his pickup and not doing too much or the actual work himself.


The soil in the Casa Grande area is a sandy loam and it’s a light reddish brown colour. The land is naturally flat with a few hills poking up here and there. With the urban growth in the area some of the best farm land has been sold to developers. Where crops once grew now sprout houses in gated communities for the rush of retiring baby boomers heading for warm weather as well as new houses for families who live in the area.

Arizona farmers grew 125,000 acres of desert durum in 2009. All the durum is grown on irrigated land and is seeded from mid-November to mid-February. Harvest is from mid-May to July. Durum in Arizona takes 160 to 180 days to mature compared with the 105 to 110 days in Western Canada. This is due to the longer days with more hours of sunlight than what we’re blessed with up north.

Durum is seeded at a rate of 180 pounds per acre (roughly three bushels per acre) usually with a disc drill. Most the fields in the Casa Grande area are 10 to 20 acre blocks for ease of irrigating and the largest tractor is about 150 horsepower. Lots of fertilizer is added due to the demands of the heavy yields and because often fields will grow two crops per year depending on the crops grown. Some are left fallow and are deep tilled to a depth of 18 to 24 inches. This leaves it quite lumpy. Soil is often disced down before seeding and worked into furrows approximately 24 inches apart to facilitate the flood irrigation.

Harvest is done almost exclusively by custom harvesters in the Casa Grande area. Wheat is considered dry at 8 per cent moisture.

Arizona Grain has three huge bins (at least 100 ft x 350 ft). One was partially full of durum the day of the tour. (See Photo 1). They also have about 10 acres where the grain is piled outside for storage. Spoilage in the outdoor piles is minimal due to the hot, dry climate. They also have 10 grain tanks that hold 1,000 tonnes each for fast loading of rail cars.

Durum yields range from 100 to 120 bushels per acre with the average at 105 bushels per acre. Prices (per bushel) averaged $4.43 in 2007, $9.92 in 2008 and $10 in 2009. Arizona Grain sells 95 per cent of their durum to overseas customers. Desert Durum is sold as an identity preserved wheat so that customers can get consistent quality.

Ron Settler, his wife Sheila, and their sons Ben and Dan farm and run a repair and salvage business at Lucky Lake, Sask.

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