Red River Valley businesses rally during sugarbeet harvest
Sugarbeet harvest plays a large role in the Red River Valley's agriculture industry. Due to the harvest being non-stop once the campaign begins, many local businesses extend their hours in an effort to rally behind sugarbeet producers.
With the steady stream of tractor lights illuminating acres upon acres of fields after dusk and trucks buzzing up and down the rural roads in the Red River Valley, one thing is clear: It’s officially sugarbeet harvest season.
While the parades of equipment and the influx of occupants in the region make it quite obvious that it’s time to get the beets out of the ground, there is another tell-tale sign: Local businesses keep their midnight oil burning. Many of these businesses keep their doors open long after the sun goes down, helping those sugarbeet producers and workers fix broken equipment, deliver a crucial part or even provide a space for a much-needed coffee break.
It may normally take a village, but in the nation's largest sugarbeet growing region it takes a Valley to get through a smooth and successful sugarbeet harvest season.
Best of both worlds
Christian Kiel knows the pressures of sugarbeet harvest all too well. Growing up in the industry, he is well-versed in the crop. But unlike some sugarbeet growers, he also understands the pressures of being a business owner during the harvest season.
Kiel is an owner of Kiel Innovation Corporation, based out of Crookston, Minnesota. He has been in the family business since 2001, but his grandfather started the business venture in the 1950s. His grandfather created the original row-finder, a breakthrough in the sugarbeet industry that keeps a harvester on a row, thus reducing loss. Kiel continues his grandfather’s legacy by building and repairing harvester row-finders.
“We’re kinda in the heart of it. We got great farmers up and down the valley,” Kiel said. “In Crookston here, we’re kinda in the center of it all.”
Kiel Innovation Corporation stays open well after the sun goes down, making sure that they can go up and down the valley at a moment’s notice to fix broken equipment.
“For me, it's keeping the customer happy and making sure that the customer is up and running. We have to get these beets out in a timely fashion, and we strive to make that happen for these guys,” Kiel said.
Kiel farms about 700 acres of sugarbeets with his wife, children and parents. In the beginning of his time in Kiel Innovation, when a customer had a breakdown that needed attention during harvest, his father would jump in the harvester and replace Christian behind the wheel. Christian would then take off to the customer’s acres and fix their equipment. Today, the Kiels have a crew to help them out with harvest, allowing Christian to focus on repairing machinery during harvest season.
“We run 24/7 just like everybody else,” Kiel said. ”I know how important it is to keep these machines running and to keep everyone moving along and to get the harvest done.”
Burning the midnight oil
Norman County Implement also keeps their midnight oil burning during the sugarbeet campaign. Staffed with two crews that work in 12-hour shifts, they make sure there's always someone with a friendly smile standing behind their counters, no matter the time.
As a full service equipment dealer, their phones ring more often than not during sugarbeet harvest season. The family owned business was started in the 1960s and has become a staple for local sugarbeet producers to not only get their equipment, but to have it fixed quickly during the campaign. Roger Hanson is on call 24 hours a day during harvest season. While it can be a draining task, he greatly enjoys his role within the beet industry.
"They do call me in the middle of the night if they have a break down, and I do go out and fix it. This morning I probably have had 25 phone calls in the last three hours,” he said. “I thrive on it.”
Keith Kaste has been with Norman County Implement since 1985 and has seen his fair share of sugarbeet harvest seasons and breakdowns. He too works the graveyard shift, 7 p.m. through 7 a.m. He attests to how important it is that they keep their doors open and sees many producers throughout the night that need assistance. Kaste noted that every second counts during the non-stop harvest endeavor, and staying open allows farmers to get their part or equipment fixed as soon as it happens.
“If you got machinery and people running in the fields there’s gonna be something,” Kaste said. “We get a lot of guys telling us ‘I’m glad you’re open’ as they leave the building.”
For Chuck Kroshus, owner of Norman County Implement, staying open is important to the business and builds trust with his customer base. Kroshus stays in close contact with American Crystal Sugar so he knows when the piling plants will be operating. While it can be a tiring time, Kroshus knows his business plays an important role in the industry and is honored to help those getting the beets out of the ground.
“On a typical night we’re gonna be running anywhere from probably 10 sales tickets up to 20 tickets per night,” Kroshus said. “It’s a need that has to happen because the guys are running 24/7.”
Pull up a chair
While getting equipment fixed is no doubt important, so is unwinding after a long shift in the harvester or recharging your battery with a warm cup of coffee, according to Mark Potucek. Potucek owns the Ada, Minnesota, Subway which has been in the town for 15 years. It, too, stays up all night during harvest, allowing people to come in, pull up a chair and enjoy company and nourishment.
“To come in the middle of the night and either get some hot coffee or something to eat is important, just a break from the night. They’re running a lot of hours,” Potucek said.
Growing up on a farm himself, Potucek is well-aware how stressful a time harvest can be and is happy to alleviate some of that stress any way he can.
“When you get to this time of the year, it’s go. I remember growing up on the farm and you got that window of trying to get things in,” Potucek said. “Once you go it’s full speed ahead.”
The Red River Valley is a force to be reckoned with in the sugarbeet industry. Minnesota and North Dakota are No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in sugarbeet production in the U.S. and in 2020 were responsible for more than 49% of the nation's sugar beet production. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's October Crop Production report, Minnesota in 2020 harvested 427,000 acres of beets, resulting in 11.145 million tons of production. North Dakota harvested 219,000 acres of beets, producing 5.453 million tons.
But the industry produces more than just sugar.
According to findings by the University of Minnesota Extension , Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative, located in southwestern Minnesota, alone generated an estimated $817.8 million in economic activity in the state in 2017, including $227.9 million in labor income.
According to Hanson, more often than not you will find someone who has been in the industry when traveling up and down the region.
“It’s amazing how many people in town you talk to that have either worked for the industry. Worked at the pile, worked for the farmers — it brings everyone together. It’s kinda a neat time,” he said.
Potucek agrees with Hanson, noting how important the industry is to the region, making his long hours well worth it.
“Everybody is dependent. It affects them dramatically,” Potucek said. “If you talk to anybody in the community, the common theme is, agriculture is very important here and the sugarbeets are another part of the agriculture that’s really important”
While the crop no doubt is a valuable asset to the Red River Valley, it also brings neighbors closer together.
“It’s amazing. We’re a big family. Up and down the valley we always take care of each other,” Kiel said.