By JONATHAN KNUTSON
Agweek via Associated Press
GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) -- Robert Stover has been raising corn all his life in eastern North Dakota.
His grandfather, Frank Stover, brought ears of corn with him from Indiana when he moved to the Larimore, N.D., area in 1901, and subsequent generations of the Stover family have kept raising it.
"We've always had it," said Robert Stover, 59.
When Bob Finken was growing up in western North Dakota, he never thought about raising corn. The crop just wasn't viable there.
Now it is. This spring, for the first time, the 53-year-old Finken, a Douglas, N.D., farmer, will be planting corn.
"It's time to try it," he said.
Corn -- old and familiar to some Upper Midwest farmers, new and a bit exotic to others -- is shining brightly this spring. Prices are strong, and ever-improving varieties allow the crop to be raised in formerly unsuitable areas.
More farmers are growing it for the first time. Many long-time corn producers are raising more of the crop than ever before.
Typically, the gain in corn acres is coming from fields that otherwise would have been planted to wheat or soybeans. Wheat, corn and soybeans are the region's three major crops.
A few measures of corn's popularity in the Upper Midwest:
. Of all the additional corn acres gained nationally in the past two years, North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota account for roughly half. Historically, U.S. corn production has been concentrated in the Corn Belt -- Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, southern Minnesota and parts of surrounding states, including eastern South Dakota.
. North Dakota's corn acreage has increased nearly fivefold since 1995, with corn acres in South Dakota doubling in the same period.
. Minnesota already was a major corn producer in 1995, so its percentage increase in corn acres is relatively modest: 30 percent. Even so, Minnesota farmers have added about 2 million corn acres over the past 17 years, nearly as many as their peers in North Dakota and South Dakota.
Treat the numbers with a dash of skepticism. The 2012 acreage numbers are just projections; the number of acres ultimately planted to corn this spring could be less.
Soybean prices have strengthened recently, which could encourage farmers to plant more of that crop and less corn. And some farmers apparently couldn't find their first, preferred variety of seed corn, which also could lead to less corn acreage, officials say.
There's no doubt, though, that area farmers will plant a lot more corn this spring. The only question is how much more.
The reason for expanded corn acreage is simple. Farmers can make more money growing it than they can with competing crops.
"It just pencils out better," Stover said, referring to corn's greater potential profitability.
Much of the credit goes to new and better corn varieties, which allow yields to rise.
"The trend line is dramatic," said Lisa Richardson, executive director of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association.
The trend line, or general statistical pattern over time, shows that average U.S. corn yields have risen from 127 bushels per acre in 1995 to an estimated 160 bushels per acre now. Yields don't go up every year -- weather inevitably has an impact -- but the trend line is higher.
Also contributing to the profitability in corn is farmers' growing use of technological tools such as GPS.
"Corn fits in well with technology," said John Mages, a Belgrade, Minn., farmer.
Corn provides sufficient return to justify the cost of new, expensive technology, which might not be the case with other crops.
Other factors are at play in rising corn acres:
. The United States is the world's leading corn producer and exporter, and export demand remains strong, said Todd Davis, senior economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation.
. Seeing potential higher profitability, more young farmers are turning to the crop in parts of the region where it traditionally wasn't grown.
"A lot of young farmers, when they join the family farming operation full time, want to grow corn," said Bart Schott, chairman of the National Corn Growers Association and a Kulm, N.D., farmer.
. More farmers are comfortable growing corn on corn, or planting corn on the same field two or more years in a row. Traditionally, farmers rotate crops on a field from year to year to combat disease and insects.
Keith Alverson, who grows corn and soybeans near Chester, S.D., said his family farming operation plans to plant corn on 80 percent of it acres this spring. Some of the fields destined for corn this spring were planted to corn last year, too.
. Corn thrives on heat and moisture, and much of the northern Great Plains has been unusually wet since 1993.
Corn is not new to North Dakota, but the crop had been grown primarily in the southeastern part of the state, where the climate was conductive to the crop. Wetter conditions and better varieties have caused crop production in the state to expand north and west. Today, there's growing interest in corn in northwestern North Dakota.
"We're on the fringes here. But it's coming," said John Woodbury, location manager in Ross, N.D., for Dakota Quality Grain Cooperative.
Officials in Minnesota and South Dakota also say interest in corn is growing in areas where traditionally the crop hasn't been grown.
Ethanol has contributed mightily to corn's increasing popularity with farmers. Nearly 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop this year is projected to be used for ethanol and a byproduct, dried distiller's grains, which is fed to livestock.
Some area farmers, particularly older ones who remember long stretches of dry weather, question what will happen to corn acres if the area turns dry again. Schott said new drought-resistant corn varieties address that concern.
Schott, who planted his first corn crop in 1977, said the long-term outlook for corn is bright and that the Upper Midwest will continue to play an increasingly important role in U.S. corn production.
"It's here, and it's only going to get bigger," he said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.