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Published December 08, 2009, 08:15 AM

A look at sugar beet harvest in western North Dakota

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

BUFORD TOWNSHIP, N.D. — The Yellowstone Valley area that produces sugar beets and a variety of crops in the so-called “Mon-Dak” area between Sidney, Mont., and Williston, N.D., had the best of both worlds for this year’s harvest — good crop size, quality and a relatively easy harvest.

Except for those chilly beets.

Steve and Lois Mortenson live in Williston, N.D., and farm in various places in the area with their grown son, Joe, and his wife, Michelle.

The home farm area is eight miles west of Williston, but the Mortensons’ larger operation is an irrigation farm, centered at Buford-Trenton irrigation Project in Buford Township, N.D. The Mortensons employ six or seven full-time hired men year-round, as well as another half-dozen during beet harvest for Sidney Sugars Inc., a subsidiary of American Crystal Sugar Co. in Moorhead, Minn.

The family seeds about 8,000 seeded, including 650 acres of sugar beets. They have raised a bit more than 600 acres of corn — 360 acres irrigated, 250 acres dryland acres. They also raise barley, durum and smaller acreages of navy beans and soybeans.

On top of that, there are 6,000 to 7,000 acres of pasture for 500 cow-calf pairs.

“We have a wide diversification,” Mortenson says. “It takes a lot of people.”

Agweek interviewed Mortenson in 2008, when drought had decimated his durum yields to 3 to 4 bushels per acre.

This year was entirely different.


“We were fortunate this year — had good timely rains, had good snowfall,” Mortenson says. “We had good sub-moisture coming into the year. We had a lot of 40- to 50-bushel durum (that) was cut in this area. Spring wheat was good. Barley was good. The dryland area was really totally blessed this year with good crops — good peas, good lentils. It was probably one of our better (producing) years, and we had good harvesting conditions.”

This year’s Sidney sugar beet harvest started Oct. 2, but immediately got about 0.9 inches of rain, so the harvest was delayed three or four days. This was followed by a cold snap, with temperature lows in the 20s and no higher than 30 for about five days.

The Mortenson crew finished the beet harvest Nov. 5. That’s remarkable because, since 1982, Mortenson has only harvested past October three times.

The Mortensons are one of about three growers in their area with 600 or more acres of beets. Most growers in his area are 250- to 400-acre beet growers.

“I started raising sugar beets in 1982, and this is probably been one of my tougher harvest,” Mortenson says. “We didn’t get the kind of rains they get in the Red River Valley, but we saw the sun for only three or four days in October.”

The Sidney sugar area was fortunate that it didn’t get the freeze like the Billings, Mont., area, where beets were severely damaged, he says. Still, it wasn’t a cakewalk.

“It wasn’t until the last week in October we were able to get in,” Mortenson says.

Mortenson gives major credit to Don Steinbeisser Jr., president of the Mon-Dak Beet Growers Association, and its other directors, as well as to Russ Fullmer and others at Sidney Sugars Inc. for special credit in getting the farmers through a difficult harvest.

“The Buford-Trenton area had a lot more freeze damage than what the Sidney and Fairview area did,” Mortenson says. “This year, the company added a separate pile at the so-called “Sugar Valley” piling area to keep the frozen beets separate that could be processed first. They also went to a quota-type system, when we did start harvest again, where everybody got to dig. That’s something we never used to have in freeze conditions. It was way better than it was in other years.”

The Mortensons haul beets 12 to 14 miles from their fields to the piling stationMortenson says his sugar beet tonnage was up, but the sugars were down, about 1.5 percent to 2 percent.

“We’re noted for good sugars out in this area,” he says. “We probably attribute a little of the losses to the Roundup Ready gene, but also the freeze that occurred with the rain.”

Yield averaged about 26 tons per acre with 17 percent sugar.

“That’s above-average for us; we’re normally in that 21 to 22 ton crop,” he says. Some fields ran very well while others with replants brought the average down.

“We were more than happy with yield and very happy to get ’em out,” Mortenson says.

Now, the price of other commodity alternatives have come down and sugar beet prices have come up since some of the contract disputes in 2007 and 2008.

Being able to growing a weed-free crop with Roundup Ready beets has made a big difference.

“American Crystal has been in our backyard more this year because they want our sugar,” he says, speculating whether the difficult Red River Valley conditions may have made a difference. Mortenson says that as long as the sugar beet pricing stays firm, farmers in his area will continue to grow them.

“It is a good rotation on this irrigated land out here,” he says.

At the 17 percent sugar level, Mortenson expects most growers this year will receive some $42 to $44 per ton for their beets.


The Mortensons’ soils were firm enough in early November to get the corn out.

“Our dryland corn looks really good — on the wet side, but it’s a shorter variety,” Mortenson says.

Combining began in mid-November. Corn harvest ended Nov. 29.

“We cut 75- to 80-bushel dryland corn, and in northwestern North Dakota, that’s really good.”

The Mortensons started the corn harvest with a couple of fields of dryland corn, so they could run cow-calf pairs on the stubble and then shifted to the irrigated corn to deliver to Pruitt & Co., a 10,000-head feedlot in Fairview, Mont.

In the end, the irrigated corn was brought in at moisture levels ranging from 18 percent to 38 percent moisture and the dryland corn was at about 18 percent.

“We have a 10,000-head feedlot over here — Pruitt & Co., run by Chantz Pruitt — who took a lot of our corn and grind it for high-moisture feeds,” he says. “We’re fortunate to have a feedlot to take this high-moisture corn.”

The longer-maturing, 92- to 98-day varieties came in wetter, and the shorter, 82- to 85-day varieties were drier.

“Granted, the cereal grain prices fell off quite a bit, but if you had durum wheat and an LDP (loan deficiency payment); spring wheat was good; if you contracted your barley, that wasn’t bad. The cattle market is just low.”


Mortenson grew up 8 miles west of Williston on a small farm. When he and Lois were married, they initially moved into selling fertilizer and chemical with his father. The Mortensons started farming nonirrigated in 1980. They seeded 600 acres the first year and harvested only 120 acres.

“We saw how risky it can be in the dry land and went to irrigation to kind of diversifiy,” Mortenson says. “We kind of wound up with both worlds.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Mortensons were heavily into flood irrigation, which is very labor-intensive. Farmers with flood irrigation are in a constant process of pulling ditches, move canvases, set irrigation tubes and set beet tubes.

Among other things, beets grown under flood irrigation must be ridged or “bedded” in the fall.

“We create a kind of mound,” Mortenson says. “We’ll plant on that mound in the spring, and if we don’t get the rainfall we need to bring our beets in the spring, we have to go in there and spring-irrigate that.”

Under pivot irrigation, some people still “bed” the sugar beets. Mortenson has done that, but this year, his crews “flat-planted” beets, without fall ridging. His crews did fall work and applied fertilizer.

“We’ll come in spring with a one-harrow operation and do it that way again next year,” he says.

Recently, Mortenson has converted 300 to 400 acres of our flood irrigation to pivots, which is making a big labor savings.

“I think that’s what’s going to be needed, especially for the younger generation. They’re just not able to find as much help, especially in our community where we have so much oil activity going on right now.”

A government program called Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, a part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program in the 2008 farm bill, allows the Mortensons to take a tax credit for up to 50 percent to 75 percent of the cost of the system change.

“Water savings, electricity savings — it’s a real good program for our area,” he says.

The pivot system continues to rely on the water that comes in ditches and allotments, purchased through an irrigation district. Lateral pipes are placed in the ditches, where the irrigation district supplies a particular volume, such as 800 gallons per minute.


Mortenson presents an upbeat outlook on agriculture, despite economic challenges specific to his corner of the world.

Labor is an issue. Much of the farm labor in the region goes from about $8 to $12 an hour, while oil rig workers can make much more.

“It’s hard,” he says of the oilfield working conditions.. “You’ve got to be a young guy to do it, but they can start there at $20 to $25 an hour.”

Mortenson has one Ukrainian who’s helped him through beet harvest, and there have been South Africans in the area on farm program incentives to have them work in the area, but the backbone of his operation is his permanent local crew. He tries to give them as much autonomy as their skills and experience allow.

“My guys — I’ve been fortunate to have my guys with me for the past eight or nine years,” he says. “They’re real key people in our farming operation. I don’t know how we’d do it without them.”

Sugar beets appear to be gaining stability again, although Mortenson acknowledges his beet lifters are 8 to 10 years old, compared with the three-year rotation when Holly Sugars owned the company.

“A lot of it’s got to do with the price of the new ones,” he acknowledges, but then adds, “There’s always that uncertainty, too, where if they were to come and take a couple of dollars from us (in per-ton beet payments) well . . . maybe we wouldn’t want to raise the beets.

“It’s a two-way street. They’ve got to fit our needs like we have to fit their needs. I don’t think you’ll see people put money in new beet equipment unless there’s really some long-term assurances there that we’re going to have sugar.”