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Published November 02, 2009, 07:46 AM

Area farmers hurry to finish harvest after wet fall

Normally, the region’s beet harvest is wrapped up by late October. But as of mid-week last week, nearly one in five beet acres was unharvested.

By: Jon Knutson, The Forum

ADA, Minn. - Sugar beet farmer John Brainard and his harvest crew had been idled for four days by rain and wet fields.

Now, on a Wednesday morning in late October, fields have dried just enough for the oft-delayed beet harvest – rain fell in Fargo on 12 of October’s first 28 days – to resume.

Brainard, an unflappable sort, isn’t one to get too high or too low. But there’s urgency to the day nonetheless. He’s harvested only 70 percent of his sugar beets, and time is running out to get the rest.

On this Wednesday, rain is forecast for the next day, which might be the only day in the week suitable for harvest.

Even more ominous, November is coming ever nearer, and the threat of harvest-ending freezing temperatures grows ever greater.

“We really hope this will be a good day,” Brainard says.

The sentiment was shared by sugar beet farmers throughout the Red River Valley. Normally, the region’s beet harvest is wrapped up by late October.

But on this Wednesday morning, nearly one in five beet acres is unharvested.

That’s not good for the region’s economy.

Minnesota leads the nation in sugar beet production. North Dakota ranks second.

Most beets in the two states are grown in the Red River Valley by shareholder/members of Moorhead-based American Crystal Sugar and Wahpeton-based Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative.

In fiscal year 2008, American Crystal had net revenue of $1.223 billion, and Minn-Dak had $243 million.

The beet harvest also puts extra bucks in the pockets of thousands of seasonal workers who drive trucks and operate other equipment.

“Up and down the Red River Valley, we couldn’t do it without them,” Brainard says of the seasonal help.

Brainard’s crew of roughly 20 seasonal workers includes a retired Twin Cities trucking foreman, a Moorhead real estate agent and a Minnesota state legislator.

Typically, most sugar beets are harvested in a two- to three-week stretch in late September and early October.

Many of the seasonal employees arrange their schedules to be available during that time.

This year’s on-again, off-again harvest complicated life for those employees.

“We really appreciate all the dedication they’ve shown,” Brainard says.

He sent two of his seasonal employees from the Twin Cities home early because harvest was so hit-and-miss.

“It just wasn’t fair to expect them to stick around this year,” he says.

In a telephone interview later, retired Twin Cities trucking foreman Jim Yerigan said he enjoys coming to Ada and driving truck during beet harvest.

“This year, it was just so spread out,” he said of the harvest.

The basics of beets

Sugar beets, related to the common red garden beet, are valuable for the sucrose, or table sugar, in their roots.

When beets are harvested, they’re first topped (the tops of the plants are sliced and removed).

Then they’re lifted, or removed from the ground by a machine called a lifter.

Lifters move through a field digging up beets and depositing them into a truck moving alongside.

When fields are wet, loaded trucks can get stuck unless they hook up to a tractor, which pulls the trucks forward.

The Brainard crew normally operates two 12-hour shifts daily – one during the day, one at night.

Each shift typically has two lifters, one topper, five trucks and, when necessary, a tractor to pull trucks.

Once out of the field, trucks take the beets to nearby “pilers” – areas where beets from many fields are stored.

Later, beets from the pilers will be taken to factories and processed.

Beets harvested Wednesday by Brainard and his crew went to the Skandia piler, about five miles away. They’ll eventually be taken to the Crookston factory operated by American Crystal Sugar.

It’s a campaign

The region’s sugar beet harvest is referred to by some as the “campaign.”

That’s a fitting name, says Joe Gunter, a truck driver for the Brainard crew during harvest.

“It’s almost like a military strike, the way it’s so planned and you’re working around the clock,” he says.

Gunter, who works in Moorhead in real estate, says he appreciates the money he earns as a truck driver.

He also enjoys beet harvest because “it’s so completely different from my normal routine.”

Another truck driver for the Brainard crew is state Rep. Kent Eken of Twin Valley.

Eken, who grow up on a farm, says the work fits his schedule. He’s also a neighbor of Joe Brainard, John’s brother.

Joe and John are partners in Twin Valley-based Black Bell Farms. The name comes from a black school bell once purchased by their father.

“John and Joe are great to work for. One of the reasons is, they stress safety,” Eken says.

“We always tell them (employees) we want them to leave in the same condition they came,” John Brainard says.

Muddy mess

Mud is the mortal enemy of sugar beet harvest.

It causes trucks to get stuck.

It sticks to equipment and slows their operation.

It can slow things so much that harvesting at night becomes impractical. Even in good conditions, darkness hampers operations.

At its worst, mud stops harvest altogether.

That’s happened too many times this fall.

“We’ve never been able to go more than two days in a row,” Brainard says.

Wednesday ends up being a pretty good day for the Black Bell Farms crew, at least considering muddy conditions.

They work until midnight, when rain forces them to quit. They harvest about 40 acres.

Still, about 75 percent of his acres remain to be harvested, and it’s uncertain what will happen with the rest.

American Crystal Sugar had harvested about 90 percent of its beets by Thursday. It was uncertain late last week whether all the beets will be harvested.

The Brainards have insurance for their beets, but they’d do better financially by harvesting and selling all their beets.

Farmers don’t necessarily collect on crop insurance, even in years they can’t harvest all of their crops.

Insurance for beets in Minnesota and eastern North Dakota is based on yields in prior years, and it doesn’t kick in unless production falls below certain levels.

Those levels depend on the amount of coverage a farmer has. The greater the coverage, the higher the cost.

Full coverage isn’t available because it would be too expensive.

“We’d sure rather get them off,” John Brainard says of beets still in the field.

He doesn’t know yet how much he’ll receive for the beets he harvests. That will depend on sugar prices, the beets’ sugar content and how many beets are produced.

On Saturday, Brainard said Black Bell Farms’ beet harvest had been shut down since last Wednesday.

He expected that, at best, it would be several more days before harvest could resume.

Brainard said he and Joe have accepted that many of the beets probably won’t get harvested.

“If we get ‘em, we get ‘em. We can only do what nature lets us,” John Brainard said.

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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