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Published February 22, 2011, 09:29 AM

Beet co-ops will grow with or without Roundup Ready seed

FARGO, N.D. — As February slips toward March, sugar beet farmers in the Red River Valley still face “massive uncertainty” about whether they’ll be planting Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2011.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — As February slips toward March, sugar beet farmers in the Red River Valley still face “massive uncertainty” about whether they’ll be planting Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2011.

The issue affects the ease of growing a hard-to-manage crop, and whether farmers in the eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota region will lose a technology that has come with significant yield increases in the past two years. For opponents, it’s an issue of whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture properly approves genetically modified crops.

Here’s a reminder about legal brinksmanship in the main case.

On Feb. 4, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service decided to approve a partial deregulation of Roundup Ready seed for this year’s commercial root crop. To bolster this, and provide certainty for the 2011 crop, on Feb. 7, sugar companies and groups asked a judge in the District of Columbia to confirm that the APHIS decision complies with the National Environmental Protection Act. Immediately, opponent plaintiffs in cases against Roundup Ready beets filed a temporary restraining order.

Planning for a decision

Companies are keeping any contingency plans close to the vest, but all three — American Crystal Sugar Co. of Moorhead, Minn., with its five plants, and Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative of Wahpeton, N.D., and Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative of Renville, Minn., each with a single processing plant — confirm that they’re making plans to make it through 2011 — with or without genetically modified seeds.

Here are their most recent comments:

n David Berg, president and chief executive officer for American Crystal Sugar Co., says it still is a “live question,” whether producers will plant Roundup Ready beets in 2011 or some combination of modified/conventional varieties.

“That’s just the uncertain terrain we’re on now,” he says.

Growers met Feb. 16 in Fargo and Grand Forks, N.D. For now, Berg declines to say whether the company has purchased any herbicide for conventional crops. Shareholders carry both the right to market beets through a cooperative, but also the obligation to produce them, whether through conventional or modified varieties. Shareholders only can plant varieties approved, and the company has not yet approved Roundup Ready varieties.

n David Roche, president of Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative, says his cooperative expects “to plant a full crop in 2011, and we currently plan to plant Roundup Ready beets. It’s the law of the land, it’s been (partially) deregulated.” That said, he acknowledges the company has “considered the possibility” that Roundup Ready seed may not be legal, and says “we’ve got those plans in place,” but declines to get into any detail. “

There’s massive uncertainty out there about what the final outcome will be,” he says. “We’re finding that regardless of what any single judge might say, it seems as though you face an appeal. We’d like to get sugar beets planted here in a decent time.”

n Todd Geselius, vice president of agriculture for Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Coop., says his cooperative is making plans for both a conventional and a Roundup ready crop.

“The bottom line is we’ve got to have beets. If we can’t have them one way, we’ve got to have them the other.”

Geselius declines to offer a timeline for when that decision has to be made. At his cooperative, the organization has offered growers lists of varieties for both conventional and Roundup Ready beets and asked them to make decisions for both scenarios.

At a production meeting Feb. 8 in Willmar, Minn., growers showed a mixed reaction to the uncertainty. The critical dates would depend on weather in the spring, whether it warms up early and producers can start planting when the crop insurance start date for beet starts, in mid-April, or whether there is a slow warm-up and planting is delayed until early May.

When asked whether his company has secured chemicals and seed for planting a conventional crop, Geselius answers: “What I want all of the shareholders at ‘Southern Minn’ to know, is when they need to have their stuff — whatever it is — we’ll do whatever we can to get it to them.”

Beet stecklings case

A separate but related case involves the fate of beet “stecklings,” a carrot-like plant stage that would pertain to the seed farmers in the Red River Valley would plant in 2012 and beyond.

The steckling case decision was on Nov. 30. Then, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White in San Francisco ordered the destruction of “steckling” crop that had been planted in September 2010, based on the conclusion that USDA-APHIS had been improperly approved. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals “stayed” that decision twice, ultimately until Feb. 28. On Feb. 15, the appellate court in San Francisco heard arguments. One issue was that removing the stecklings at this date is a moot issue because they’re typically removed and transplanted by the Feb. 28 date anyway. Sugar lawyers also wanted the decision limited to the steckling removal only, and arguing that replanting would be done under a separate permit.

Mohamed Khan, a North Dakota State University/University of Minnesota sugar beet specialist, based in Fargo, says he hopes there is more certainty by the March 16 and 17 when gather at the International Sugar Beet Institute, Khan says.

“We have a green light, but there’s still a lot of yellow flashing right now,” he says.

Khan says beets are grown in about 10 states. Producers in some significant areas, like Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana, have specific problems with such diseases as “curly top,” and there may be insufficient seed to plant them to conventional varieties with resistance to the disease.

Field monitoring

Khan says that even if the partial deregulation allows some Roundup Ready beets to be planted, producers will face the added responsibility of monitoring fields. Currently stated, the rules would require them to start monitoring as early as April 1 — even if the beets aren’t planted or emerged by then. Farmers will have to make sure they mechanically remove and destroy any “bolter” plants that have come up. Growers probably will have to be trained to make sure that problem of bolters that produce seeds in one year, instead of the normal two-year period, are destroyed before they produce seed.

Another issue for the future, Khan says, will be the fate of research that has been aimed at fighting rhizomania and leaf spot in sugar beets, which recently has been initiated in transgenic varieties.

“What happens to this research if you now have to go back to conventional sugar beets?” he says.

Scott V. Anderson, a Fargo-based sales representative for Dow AgroSciences, says if farmers are forced to plant conventional beets this year, they would have to return to managing weeds when they’re smaller and more vulnerable to herbicides. They won’t be able to wait until the weeds are 4 or 5 inches tall, as they have when using glyphosate. He says some farmers may have sold off some of their herbicide “banding” equipment, or aren’t as used to using it, because they’ve shifted to broadcast equipment.

Chemical source

One issue is where the chemical would come from for a conventional crop.

Anderson says Dow AgroSciences expects sales of its Stinger, which would be used in a conventional crop, to be higher than 2010 because many farmers needing to supplement glyphosate to get rid of volunteer soybeans anyway, Anderson says, or to boost Roundup’s effectiveness on hard-to-kill weeds, such as ragweed, wild buckwheat and lamb’s-quarters.

Anderson says there appears to be more weed resistance to glyphosate (Roundup) farther south because the rotations often only includes corn and soybeans, both of which are commonly Roundup Ready. In the Red River Valley, especially in the north, there still are more producers who use corn varieties with different modes of herbicide action, or rotate wheat in.

Wheat prices have been strong, and U.S. Department of Agriculture research seems to show that wheat is the best rotation option just before beets, Anderson says. Soybeans, on the other hand, make the nitrogen harder to manage, and often produce too much nitrogen than sugar beets need.

“Dow is glad if they get permission to use Roundup Ready beets, even though we stand to gain on Stinger sales, temporarily,” Anderson says.

The reason is that Dow owns three seed companies — Dairyland, Mycogen and Hyland — and all of those are working on their own genetically modified seed products with traits including drought tolerance or vitamin improvement, for example.

“We look at it as a win for the entire ag industry,” Anderson says. “I don’t know of a company that didn’t want this Roundup Ready beet decision. We’ve gone too far down the trail to turn the other direction.”