The 2020 American Crystal Sugar Co. harvest is in the books as farmers who grow beets for the cooperative finished it in record time.

The 17-day harvest, which began Sept. 30 and concluded Oct. 16, is the fastest in at least 25 years, said Brian Ingulsrud, American Crystal Sugar Co. vice president of agriculture. The next fastest harvest wrap-up was in 2015, when it was completed Oct. 21, he said.

The downside of the dry weather that made for a smooth, speedy harvest is that sugar beets didn’t receive the rain they needed to put on tonnage. Yields averaged slightly less than 25 tons per acre, Ingulsrud said.

“The average is not that great,” he said. “We had a pretty small amount of rain in September this year. They really did run out of moisture at the end.”

Total sugar beet production this year is 10 million tons, 3.5 million tons more than last year, when farmers abandoned a total of 115,000, or about 30%, of the 390,000 acres they planted. They left approximately 3.5 million tons of sugar beets unharvested.

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This year’s near-perfect weather conditions were in sharp contrast to last year, when rain and snow prolonged the harvest into November, then freezing temperatures damaged the sugar beets.

“To have these two years back to back, being so crazy different, is kind of amazing,” Ingulsrud said.

This year’s per-acre production on the 405,000 farmers harvested is about 4 tons less than in 2018, when farmers harvested 28.9 tons per acre, the third highest in the cooperative’s history, according to American Crystal Sugar Co.

About 2,800 Minnesota and North Dakota farmers grow sugar beets for the Moorhead-based cooperative, which has processing plants in the North Dakota cities of Drayton and Hillsboro and in the Minnesota cities of East Grand Forks, Crookston and Moorhead.

During the past decade there have been four years that production has been lower than 10 million tons.

Total production in 2019 was 7.7 million tons. In 2015, farmers harvested 9.5 million tons; in 2012, 9.1 million tons; and in 2010, 9.9 million tons, Ingulsrud said.

The company’s long-term average production is 11.5 million tons.

“It is concerning that it will result in a higher fixed cost per ton, which lowers the beet payment. The positive about this year’s crop is that it is a nice sugar content,” Ingulsrud said.

Sugar content of the 2020 crop is about 18.2%, said Dan Gowan, American Crystal Sugar Co. director of agriculture. The sugar content of the beets increased during the dry field conditions in the weeks preceding the stockpile harvest, he said.

"We think it’s good. We were very happy to get into the 18s,” Gowan said, noting that the sugar content of the 2 million tons of beets the cooperative received during pre-harvest averaged much lower than 18%.