Waiting for the sugar beet harvest to start in the Red River Valley is like Christmas in a way, East Grand Forks farmer Nick Hagen said.

"You know what you've asked for, and you've probably shaken the box a few times," he said Tuesday when asked what this year's harvest could yield. "So you sort of have an idea, but until you crack open the box, it's only a good guess."

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By today, Hagen and other Red River Valley farmers will have a better picture of the early Christmas presents. The beet harvest kicked off this weekend, with American Crystal Sugar Co. starting to take in truckloads in earnest at 12:01 Saturday.

It will be a mad rush to get the beets out of the ground and to pile yards. Pre-pile for American Crystal started Aug. 15 to allow sugar factories to prepare for the harvest.

But farmers have been waiting until it is cold enough to go into full swing with the beet harvest-if it is too hot, the sugar content in the beets could drop.

"If they are harvested any earlier, the temperatures are going to be too warm to be able to preserve the beets," Hagen said. "We want the harvest to hit that sweet spot where it is not too cold, not too hot."

"It definitely deteriorates if it is not in that frozen state."

The kickoff date for the beet harvest falls around the time when the plants tend to reach their full potential.

"That's a good date that allows us to see the full growth potential of the beets, but it's early enough to ensure that we will be able to harvest the crop before winter sets in," he said.

Having a set date also allows the farmers to hire the crew it needs to get the job done, he said. Crews more than double to complete the harvest, said Brian Ingulsrud, vice president of agriculture at American Crystal.

"It takes somewhere around 10,000 temporary employees, whether they are working for the company at the pile sites or working for the growers, driving trucks," he said. "There is no way we could accomplish that harvest without all of that help."

For about three weeks, workers likely will go 24/7 to tackle the harvest, Hagen said. There also is work to be done after the harvest to prepare the fields for next year's planting season.

"It's all in an effort to get those beets off as quickly as possible," he said. "From Oct. 1, it is really go, go, go."

State of the harvest

American Crystal samples beets to form an early picture of the harvest. September rains may have reduced the sugar content slightly, but it should be above average, Ingulsrud said.

Early projections for the harvest were optimistic, with yields and plant populations expected to hit all-time highs, according to experts in the field.

About 12 percent of North Dakota's beet harvest was completed as of Monday, Sept. 25, or slightly behind last year's completion rate of 13 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Two-thirds of the crop is classified as excellent and 25 percent is considered good, according to the USDA crop progress report.

Production in the state is forecast to be down slightly from last year, with farmers set to harvest 6.03 million tons, according to a USDA crop production report released Sept. 12. Average yields should hit a record 31.4 tons per acre, the report said.

In Minnesota, production should hit a record high of 12.6 million tons, up slightly from last year, according to the USDA. Yields should average 31.1 tons per acre, which also is a record for Minnesota.

About 10 percent of the crop in the state had been lifted, with the harvest about five days behind, according to USDA crop and progress report issued last week. Most of the crops-89 percent, were ranked good to excellent.

The weather can play a role in how fast the harvest goes. Last year, excessive rains made the harvest difficult since soil stuck to the beets. That, as well as hot spells, can cause growers to suspend the harvest, Ingulsrud said.

There have been years when the harvest has stretched into November, he said.

A drier-than-normal year may help farmers pull beets out of the ground without much extra mud, which will also help the plants process the plants more efficiently. It's possible there could be heat shutdowns early on, Ingulsrud said.

"Things can really change in a matter of days," Hagen said. "You really don't know until you are under that Christmas tree."