It is a well known fact that working in the agriculture industry has its fair share of unknowns. From wavering market prices to unpredictable weather, agriculturalists have learned to weather the storm. Through wading in these storms, farmers have gone above and beyond proving their resilience, even after disaster strikes. Sugar beet growers in the Red River Valley region, like Neil Rockstad, are a perfect example of that resilience.

Planting the seed

Rockstad grew up on his family’s farm located in the Red River Valley, helping his grandfather, father and uncle on their family’s operation where they grew wheat, soybeans and barley. Quickly, the passion for production agriculture was instilled into Rockstad.

“While there are some jobs in the industry that may seem more attractive and less high-risk than being a farmer, production ag is where my interest lies,” Rockstad said.

Rockstad is a fourth generation farmer himself and now farms the ground he grew up on, but that is not his only family tie back to the Minnesota soil.

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“I farm land that both my great-grandfathers farmed on, and I also farm on land that my wife’s grandfather farmed on. It means a lot to have that family connection to the land,” he said.

Growing up, Rockstad was an active 4-H and FFA member. He showed sheep as well as horses and participated in demonstrations and public speaking through the organization.

When it came time for Rockstad to enter college, he decided to stick with the industry he had come to love, choosing agriculture. Rockstad graduated from North Dakota State University with a degree in ag economics and minors in ag systems management and crop and weed science. Taking his education with him, Rockstad came back to the family farm.

He helped his father to begin with and slowly took over as the head of the farm. While Rockstad currently raises wheat and soybeans, he took on a different venture than his father: sugar beets.

“I started raising sugar beets in 1998. My dad never raised them but my grandfather and uncle had. I took over the sugar beets after my uncle retired. He had been in sugar beets for 50 years. He asked me if I wanted to take them over, and that’s how I got my start,” Rockstad said.

And take over, he did. After taking over the reins to the sugar beet operation, Rockstad not only has farmed the crop, but also has become a leading advocate for sugar beets. Rockstad is currently the president of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association as well as a board member to the American Sugarbeet Growers Association. Through these positions, Rockstad helps not only the sugar beet growers in the Red River Valley be heard, but growers all around the country.

A nightmare harvest

Growers in The Red River Valley expect a much better harvest season than 2019. (Emily Beal / Agweek)
Growers in The Red River Valley expect a much better harvest season than 2019. (Emily Beal / Agweek)

The past couple of years have been hard on not just the agriculture industry, but its producers as well; sugar beet growers are no exception. The past two years for sugar beet growers in the Red River Valley have been abnormally difficult.

“In 2018, our harvest was drug out. It was an absolute grind and battle until the very end. Lots of rain delays. We were just happy we completed and were able to be done for the season,” Rockstad said.

But the 2018 harvest could not possibly compare to the sugar beet harvest 2019 brought to the Valley's sugar beet producers.

“The 2019 harvest was a nightmarish mess. Harvest started out wet, and the first days of October it started to rain large amounts often, up and down the Red River Valley. It was a fight every step of the way. What should have been a two-week harvest went to 45 days, and we left a large percentage of the crop in the field unharvested. I left a third of my crop in the fields. You always look for a better tomorrow as a farmer and there was just never a better tomorrow,” Rockstad said.

Unlike crops such as soybeans, once the ground freezes, farmers are not able to get in and harvest sugar beets. This posed an issue for sugar beet producers in the 2019 harvest. The frozen soil was an obstacle that many farmers could not overcome.

“We were able to pull some sugar beets out when the ground was semi-frozen, but then the mud was the same size as the sugar beat. Sometimes you’d be loading as many mud chunks as sugar beets into the harvester and that is just not acceptable,” Rockstad said.

The harvest was also extremely hard on equipment and was quite labor intensive, with many farmers putting in double the labor compared to a normal harvest and getting a much smaller outcome.

Moving forward

Though the past two harvest seasons have undoubtedly been difficult for sugar beet growers in the Red River Valley, things are beginning to look up.

“Everybody who is in the ag business is an eternal optimist. We know anything can happen, but we certainly don’t expect to see a repeat of last year and hope not to see a repeat like that for generations,” Rockstad said.

As for the sugar beet crop itself, it seems to be doing very well this year in the Red River Valley, a welcomed sight after the past two harvests. In addition, the state of the sugar industry is on an upward trend.

“The sugar industry itself is stable, especially during this whole coronavirus situation. Several commodities have faced up and downs because of that, but sugar has been able to weather those storms. People went back into the kitchen and started baking. The demand is strong. Overall, I think the sugar industry is in a good spot,” Rockstad said.

In spite of the treacherous harvests, sugar beet growers in the Red River Valley continue to show their perseverance, tenacity and spirit that is the agriculture industry.