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Published March 14, 2012, 05:44 PM

Optimistic about sugar beets

The International Sugarbeet Institute is celebrating its 50th anniversary with beautiful spring weather and optimism that the best is yet to come for the Red River Valley’s sugar beet industry.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

The International Sugarbeet Institute is celebrating its 50th anniversary with beautiful spring weather and optimism that the best is yet to come for the Red River Valley’s sugar beet industry.

“This is a very vibrant industry,” said Mohamed Khan, extension sugar beet specialist for North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota.

The region produces 60 percent of U.S. sugar beets and someday “can produce more than 60 percent,” he said.

Khan is one of the organizers of the Institute, which began Wednesday and concludes Thursday at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D. The Institute is billed as the nation’s largest sugar beet trade show; an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people will attend over the two days.

Wednesday brought temperatures in the 50s with very little wind. Thursday also was expected to be unusually warm.

The show began in 1963 in Crookston, Minn., and now alternates annually between the Alerus Center and the Fargodome in Fargo, N.D.

This year, more than $4.5 million worth of products from 125 companies are on display at the Alerus Center. Through the years, equipment at the show consistently has become bigger and more sophisticated.

“I’ve stopped saying it (the equipment) can’t be any bigger,” said Nick Sinner, executive director of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, who was manning his organization’s booth at the trade show.

Farm bill and more

Area sugar beet growers, like other farmers and agribusiness people, are watching work on the new U.S. farm bill, the federal government’s main food and agricultural policy tool. The existing farm bill expires at the end of the year and needs to be renewed.

Sinner said he and other members of his group were in Washington, D.C., recently and were pleased to find bipartisan support for a new farm bill.

“There’s gridlock on a lot of things but this (the farm bill) is something they can work on and make progress,” he said.

Sinner said “there’s nothing new” on the lockout of union members by Moorhead, Minn.-based American Crystal Sugar Co. in a labor dispute.

The Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, whose members supply beets to American Crystal, continues to hope that the dispute will be resolved, Sinner said

Several union supporters on Wednesday stood along a street near the Alerus Center with signs calling for an end to the lockout. Union supporters have held similar signs at other farm shows this winter at the Alerus.

Planting beets will be easier if the warm, dry spring continues, Sinner said.

However, beet farmers won’t start planting their crop in the next few weeks even if field and weather conditions would allow them to do so, he said

Under federal crop insurance rules, April 11 is the earliest that farmers in Minnesota and eastern North Dakota can plant sugar beets, according to information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The mild winter and spring are appreciated by the region’s sugar beet industry, said Mike Sauer, of Wahpeton, N.D.-based Allied Beet Service, which bills itself as “Your Sugar Beet Equipment Specialists.”

In his 25 years in the sugar beet industry, “I’ve seen the good years and the bad years,” he said.

Optimism going into this spring is about as high as he can remember, Sauer said.

A look at sugar prices

High U.S. sugar prices are part of the reason for optimism in the area’s sugar beet industry.

There are “early signs” that high U.S. sugar prices could be encouraging food companies and consumers to consider alternatives, said Owen Wagner, a senior economist for LMC International, an agricultural consulting company.

But Wagner, who spoke Wednesday at the Institute, said he doesn’t expect U.S. sugar prices to drop substantially.