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Published September 23, 2010, 09:50 AM

Montana farmers pull beet crop earlier after freeze

BILLINGS, Mont. — After being frozen out in 2009, area sugar beet farmers are harvesting early this year and hoping to get the most out of historically sweet market prices.

By: Tom Lutey, Billings Gazette

BILLINGS, Mont. — After being frozen out in 2009, area sugar beet farmers are harvesting early this year and hoping to get the most out of historically sweet market prices.

Beet dumps that dot the region’s secondary roads are piling up with crops about a month earlier than usual. And the Western Sugar Cooperative refinery in Billings is going full tilt at a time of year when normally it would just be warming up.

That’s because farmers were eager to get the harvest going after a bizarre four-day freeze last October extensively damaged area sugar beets. Montana farmers left about $10 million in beet profits frozen in the ground last year. Wyoming losses were closer to $12 million.

Mike Hofer, vice president of agriculture for Western Sugar, said getting the beets out of the ground earlier this year was a no-brainer.

“In the past, there has been no regional interest. This year interest is strong,” said Hofer.

Sugar beets were traditionally harvested in October for several reasons.

They had another month to grow and their sugar content was often better.

But more importantly, they came out of the ground cooler in October, which meant they stored better when piled out in the open. Being piled during cool fall days didn’t hurt either.

Warm beets spoil quickly. And just like apples in a barrel, it takes just one bad beet to spoil a bunch. To minimize spoilage and still get the harvest under way, Western’s beet dumps are taking turns so the beets are piled only briefly before heading to the factory, Hofer said.

On the farm, that means only so many beets can be harvested before the local pile is ruled full and the harvest is put on pause. Ervin Schlemmer of Joliet had his turn early last week. By Wednesday he was waiting while farmers at another beet dump got their turn. It’s a different way of doing things, Schlemmer said, but if Western beats the weather, it will be worth it.

There’s ample incentive to get as many beets as possible out of the ground this year. Sugar prices are surging as global worries of crop failure become realized. Brazil, the world’s largest sugar producer, is scaling back its crop estimates because of damage. Australia, the world’s third largest sugar exporter is also reporting crop damage. In response, commodities futures have gone up as much as 23 cents a pound in recent days.

In U.S. markets, crystal sugar is also experiencing a renaissance as high fructose corn syrup loses popularity with American consumers. The Wall Street Journal reports that American consumption of high fructose corn syrup is at a 20-year low because consumers believe the syrup to be more harmful and more likely to cause obesity than crystal sugar. High fructose corn syrup has been the main sweetener for soda and other products since the 1970s.

Now food manufacturers are turning back to crystal sugar for major products, including Hunt’s Ketchup.

Corn sweetener companies are quick to point out there is no evidence crystal sugar is any healthier than high fructose corn syrup. And last week the Corn Refiners Association asked the federal government for permission to begin calling high fructose corn syrup “corn sugar” instead.

Beet growers couldn’t be happier to see crystal sugar make a comeback. And regional crop yields have been excellent, Hofer said. While other growers in the West have to battle weather problems, Montana farmers this year expect good yields.

“In Montana, we’re looking at a 32-ton crop” per acre Hofer said. “Our yields have only gone up. Our cooperative is 10 years old this year. To put that in perspective, 10 years ago we had a 22-ton crop.”

The beet harvest hasn’t started in many parts of Wyoming yet. Cal Jones of Wyoming Sugars confirmed that his growers were sticking with October, while other farmers reported deferring harvest after having to replant. The sugar beet production forecast is 21 percent above 2009. Wyoming sugar beet farmers expect to harvest 818,000 tons of beets.