MARANA, Ariz. —As the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact businesses, some industries are actually benefitting from the chaos.
Pasta sales are soaring and, it turns out, Italy buys some of its most important ingredients right here in the U.S.
Farmers say the Grand Canyon state has the ideal conditions for growing Desert Durum wheat, a popular ingredient for making pasta. It brings in between $60 to $80 million annually to the state.
“The Italians have really favored the quality of this wheat for over 30 years,” said Wilkey. “Here it’s going to be sunny every day, we can turn irrigation on and off and so that’s our kind of unique environment, it creates a consistently high quality product...we have very low disease incidents, diseases that would find their way into wheat crops.”
Arizona Grain, Inc. helps process around 330 million pounds of Desert Durum each year, shipping to factories around the world, who then turn the grain into pasta. Wilkey says their durum can make roughly 300 million boxes of pasta. They export half of that to Italy, and COVID-19 has sent orders soaring.
“What we have seen is our customers who have already purchased come back and say 'I would like to buy some more, can I add to that contract,'” said Wilkey.
Known for its extended shelf life, pasta is a staple of panic buying. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the National Pasta Association estimates sales increased by 18 percent across the U.S.
“Indeed we’ve seen a renaissance in the last several months of pasta consumption as people have rediscovered the ultimate comfort food,” said Carl Zuanelli, National Pasta Association chairman and CEO of Nuovo Pasta. "Leading up to pre-Covid data the consumption had been flat going into February.”
Arizona Grain, Inc. created a program called Identity Preserve in which wheat breeders, producers, and the handlers take the best seed genetics to recreate more seeds for future use.
"The grower grows it, we keep it isolated and that delivers the best characteristics to a pasta manufacturer because he knows he’s going to get the same thing every time, every year he buys it from us," said Wilkey.
Arizona farmers hope this buying trend continues. Jon Post, of Post Farms in Marana, Ariz., has been growing Desert Durum for 25 years, and wrapped up his harvesting last week.
“I mean we’re all hoping that the recent spike in pasta usage will translate into higher prices for our durum next year,” said Post.
Desert Durum wheat isn’t as profitable as veggies, but if demand stays strong, and prices rise, it could be good for farmers.
“I hope that they’ve eaten so much pasta that they need all the durum wheat we can produce next year,” said Post.
Post says if consumer demand continues like this he’s hoping to plant more than double the amount of durum wheat seeds next year.