Pasta Prices Rise: It's as American as Farfalle

FarfalleIt's still raining in North Dakota, and the price of pasta, couscous and other grain-based products is going to raise significantly over the next year. And yes, these things are connected, because pasta has become as American as apple pie and the square dance (North Dakota's state dance, don't you know?).

North Dakota is prime territory for the cultivation of durum wheat, the basic ingredient in pasta and couscous. In March, 1.69 million acres were planted; in Montana, the next-largest durum wheat-producing state, only 500,000 acres of durum wheat were planted.

Planting generally takes place all the way through the end of June in most years, but due to flooding and extensive rainfall, North Dakotan farmers stopped planting June 19th and never took it up again. Due to the early stoppage, only 44% of its yearly crop was planted, and durum wheat futures -- which last year ranged between $5 and $9 a bushel -- have spiked to an average of $15 a bushel, three times the price at harvest in September 2010.

While this spike might normally be attributed to a temporary supply/demand freakout, quickly mollified by new plantings or a balance of supply in Canada, whose durum wheat production is typically two or three times that of the U.S., this year, "unrelenting rain across large areas of Western Canada" has durum wheat plantings at 3.4 million acres according to the Canadian Wheat Board. That's twice North Dakota's acreage, to be sure, but it's still the least since 1971 and not enough to make up for the hole in North American demand.

We eat a lot of pasta.According to the International Pasta Organization, U.S. consumption of pasta per capita may be piddling compared to Italy (where the famously passionate folks who popularized the stuff put back just over 57 pounds per person per year), but we're tied for sixth in the world for pasta consumption at just about 20 pounds annually. With tomato and pork prices already up by as much as two times in some markets, that plate of spaghetti is starting to look mighty pricey.

Gone, anyway, are the days when I could buy a pound of pasta at Trader Joe's for 69 cents (and that wasn't that long ago!). In May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, pasta at U.S. supermarkets was up to about $1.23 a pound in May, the highest on a record that goes back to 1980. I now pay $1.69 a pound for organic pasta, the same price for that can of tomatoes that used to be 69 cents, too. And if this wet spring and early summer were any indication, we'll be paying way more than that this fall.

Pasta is a pretty cheap food still, but there are other options out there. Instead of pasta -- which must be processed, adding cost and removing some of the nutritional content of the grain -- whole grains are a nice, healthy, inexpensive choice. A few years ago I fell in love with farro, which can be used as a pasta substitute in cold or warm pasta dishes. I love it with summer vegetables in an olive-oil-based pasta salad.

Another old-fashioned grain that can be used in place of pasta is ordinary rice: Think pilaf, dressed up and made modern. Farmers are bringing a number of varieties of heirloom rices to market; they're about the same price as a good pasta and will give you both more nutrition and a surprising nuance of taste to your dishes.

Coincidentally, I met the author of Ancient Grains for Modern Meals at a conference last month. The book is a fantastic way to explore some of the ways you can avoid high pasta prices while adding to your culinary repertoire. It may seem fancy to cook with a variety of grains and leave plain old penne behind, but you'll be prepared to skirt the punishment that wet weather is about to exert on your wallet.

If you start now, you'll be ready when lasagna season approaches this fall -- and you'll avoid the cash register shock that will surely befall you otherwise.
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