A combination of a long-term warming trends, improved seeds and soaring profits has sparked a "corn boom" in the Northern Plains that might one day turn North and South Dakota into the new Iowa, analysts say.
"All you need to do is look on a research footprint map of the United States and Canada, and compare where we are today to where we were 10 years ago, and you would see the movement from the north to the west," said Paul Schickler, president of DuPont's Pioneer Hi-Bred unit, known also as DuPont Pioneer.
The core of the traditional U.S. Corn Belt lies across Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, the three "I-states" that together produce more than one-third of the nation's corn, used mainly to feed livestock and produce ethanol fuel. Corn is the largest U.S. crop, and the United States is the world's biggest supplier.
Until recent years, corn planting in the Dakotas was limited due to the region's more northern latitude and comparatively dry conditions, both of which shortened the growing season too much for corn. Spring-planted wheat was the favored alternative.
But by 2012, South Dakota had become the sixth-largest corn-producing state, while North Dakota elbowed its way into the Top 10 for the first time, out-producing Wisconsin, where corn is central to the state's dairy economy.
What has changed? The climate, for one. Average temperatures in the Dakotas have been warming steadily for decades, according to weather records, making the region more hospitable to corn. Equally significant, annual precipitation has, on average, increased since around 1990.
Also, farming practices have improved, with seed companies producing corn hybrids customized for the shorter northern growing season.
"We are trying to expand geographies where we can grow corn," said Mike Gumina, a vice president with DuPont Pioneer and a past chairman of the American Seed Trade Association.
While older varieties of corn might take 120 days to mature, Gumina said 90-day and even 80-day varieties today are "fairly commonplace."
The other big change in the last five years is the ethanol boom. Farmers are trying to cash in on corn prices that have doubled since 2006, the last year before a change in the U.S. Renewable Fuels Standard mandated an increase in the amount of ethanol that oil refiners must blend into gasoline.
"There is tremendous demand for corn right now, and certainly corn has risen to the top as the farm product with the highest value and demand," said Nathan Franzen, president of the agribusiness division at First Dakota National Bank in Yankton, South Dakota. "I believe corn has developed into a superior plant because of the wide uses and the flexibility it has."