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Growing Corn in Alaska

(Reuters) – As it grew stronger, corn grew faster. Corn that required 120 days to mature in the U.S. Corn Belt during the 1960s now needs only 105 to 115 days. Farmers in northern North Dakota plant and harvest corn in 80 days, and have doubled the state's production in five years.

Fast corn is now stirring even the imaginations of researchers in the far north. University of Alaska Fairbanks horticulture professor Meriam Karlsson grew hundreds of corn plants in the Arctic state in 2015.

The plants, germinated in a greenhouse before they were transplanted outside, grew from a short-season garden corn variety that matured in less than 60 days. Corn rose only four to five feet, allowing plants to spend maximum energy on growing ears, rather than leaves and stalks. Karlsson had expected few corn plants to survive in Fairbanks – less than 120 miles (190 kilometers) from the Arctic Circle.

“It’s much more adaptable than I expected," she said. "Amazing what breeding can do. It was kind of exciting that you could do it.” The lure of technology comes down to money for farmers.

Even with Chicago corn futures down more than 50 percent from their 2012 record high, the high-yielding crop offers one of the strongest returns to Canadian farmers, generating profits per acre four times that of canola, based on average prices and costs, said National Bank analyst Greg Colman.

As corn spreads across the Canadian Prairies, those robust yields are winning farmers over, said Dan Wright, Monsanto Canada's lead for corn and soybeans. "Once you harvest corn at 140 or 180 bushels, it's something you want to do again," he said.

While corn compares nicely to some crops, it offers U.S. farmers marginal returns at current prices, Bernstein's Oxgaard said. Switching to other crops is not easy in areas like the U.S. Midwest, where farmers traditionally swing between corn and soybeans, and have invested in costly equipment to grow them.

Editor’s Note: Reporting by Priyanka Paul

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