Can't 'beet' this year

As an "amazing year" ends, American Crystal Sugar Co.'s beet harvest was slated to be complete late Wednesday, said President and CEO David Berg. Only a few acres were left by late afternoon, company officials reported. Another abnormally warm la...

As an "amazing year" ends, American Crystal Sugar Co.'s beet harvest was slated to be complete late Wednesday, said President and CEO David Berg.

Only a few acres were left by late afternoon, company officials reported.

Another abnormally warm late-October day capped what has been a near-perfect season that will show a record per-acre yield of beets and above-average sugar content, Berg said.

Plus, it's a cleaner bunch of beets piled across the five factory districts of the Moorhead-based firm, allowing them to retain quality through seven more months before they are turned into sugar, cutting expenses all around.

"Things are good," Berg said, including all of agriculture in this part of the world. "Things have gone so well in so many aspects of this crop season, it's pretty rare."


Sugar prices are at historically high levels, too, which bodes well for what American Crystal growers will receive for this crop, Berg said.

The sugar market is controlled by tariffs, but world sugar prices have doubled since June, going from 14 cents to 28 cents a pound, he said.

American Crystal is the nation's largest sugar beet producer. This spring, its growers in the Red River Valley planted 420,000 acres, about 84 percent of share acres owned by 2,768 share owners and produced by 850 "farm units," Berg said. About 5,000 acres drowned out or otherwise didn't make it to harvest.

"It appears to be a record yield in terms of tons per acre, about 26.5 tons per acre," said Jeff Schweitzer, American Crystal spokesman. "That's a little less than our earlier predictions."

But it's a full ton, or about 4 percent, higher than the previous record yield and will mean about 11 million tons of beets from the 415,000 acres harvested.

Before harvest began, American Crystal projected up to 28.5 tons average yield.

But some disease, including root rot, that doesn't show up much until the beets are lifted, hit 3,000 to 4,000 acres, mostly in the northern valley where too much rain came, Schweitzer said.

Daniel Olson, who farms near the Red River southeast of Thompson, N.D., said his beets showed some root rot once the tops came off, and that lowered his average yield to about 24 tons an acre.


The same warm temperatures that paused harvest during the days also kept the beets growing and adding sugar, Schweitzer said.

The average sugar content looks to be about 17.7 percent, slightly above the five-year average of 17.5 percent, and a full percent above last year's 16.7 percent, Schweitzer said.

Thank a perfect year, Berg said.

"You can start in April and go right up until today ... and there has been almost no adverse weather," Berg said.

Even the clouds of the cool and rainy September had silver linings: It slowed the crop's growth enough that growers didn't have to set aside part of the crop and disk it down because it was too much.

Dry fields were a big change from the past two muddy harvests, Berg said. "Mud slows the harvest, decreases beet quality in the pile and has to be cleaned off beets and hauled back."

Berg did his own math to illustrate the difference this year and last, mud-wise: last year, the 11 million tons of beets, trucked in at 25-ton loads, included 4 percent, or 440,000 tons, of mud.

This year, the mud/dirt part of a beet truck load was 3 percent, or 110,000 fewer tons of clay that gums up the whole works and then has to be hauled back out to fields eventually.


That 110,000 tons is equivalent to 4,400 truckloads of mud, not hauled from field to piling station, then to factories.

"That's over 50 miles of semis parked nose to tail, of mud that stayed in the field," Berg said.

This year, calculating the tons of beets per acre times the percent of sugar per beet will result in an average of about 9,500 pounds of recoverable sugar per acre, compared with about 7,000 pounds on average just a few years ago, a 36 percent increase, Berg said.

"It's just a good year," he said. "Good-quality seed and a good growing season and growing practices and good harvest weather line up to drop a lot of sugar in the bin."

A big question going into next year is whether growers will be able to use the genetically engineered beet seed that this year made up 95 percent of American Crystal's acres, Berg said.

Next year?

The "Roundup Ready" seed allows more efficient weed control with the use of the popular Roundup herbicide, but there's no clear evidence it actually yields more per acre than conventional seed, Berg said.

But opponents of the seed say cross-pollination with conventional seeds will lead to weeds resistant to herbicides. Litigation over it led a federal judge in August to rule Roundup Ready beet seed can't be used until the U.S. Department of Agriculture further studies its use.


"There are a number of things that have to happen to allow the planting of Roundup Ready sugar beets and we will be flexible to deal with events as they unfold," Berg said.

"We are going to do what we need to do," he said of being ready to put in a crop of conventional seed as well as do whatever can be done to get Roundup Ready seed re-approved.

The switch from conventional seed the past three years means there are supplies of conventional seed out there "sitting in inventories," he said. "We are going to do what we have to do to make sure we get our hands on that."

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to .

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