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Published October 29, 2012, 10:14 AM

Bringing in the beets

With beet acres stuck in wet fields on the north end of the Red River Valley, American Crystal Sugar Co.’s board of directors decided Oct. 23 to allow harvest of any beets that growers planted.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — With beet acres stuck in wet fields on the north end of the Red River Valley, American Crystal Sugar Co.’s board of directors decided Oct. 23 to allow harvest of any beets that growers planted.

Crystal spokesman Jeff Schweitzer says growers who had been allowed to plant up to 88 percent of preferred stock acres now can harvest them all. As of Oct. 23, the farmer-owned cooperative had harvested 80 percent of the planted acres, which totaled 430,000 this year.

Farmers in the northern Drayton, N.D., area were the furthest behind, with an average of 68 percent of the planted acres harvested, Schweitzer says. The co-op had so far received 9.2 million tons of beets and — depending on how the final days of harvest go — is hoping to bring in more than 11 million tons to maximize the co-op-wide returns.

Until Oct. 23, shareholders had been allowed to harvest 83 percent of their preferred stock acres, and officials were watching to see how the crop was coming in up north. Completion progress in the five factory districts from south to north is: Moorhead, Minn., 92 percent complete; Hillsboro, N.D., 88 percent; Crookston, Minn., 83 percent; East Grand Forks, Minn., 78 percent; and Drayton, 68 percent.

Schweitzer says the weather forecast for getting the beets out of the field looks questionable — rain followed by some freezing or low nighttime temperatures.

“As we close out the harvest, it’s really important that we put good, storable beets in our piles,” Schweitzer says. “If we’re going to see muddier conditions, we have to be on the look-out for frost-damaged beets.”

The Drayton district has the largest number of acres and beets, but often beets from that district are shipped to the company’s two largest factories in East Grand Forks and Hillsboro. Schweitzer says it’s uncertain whether any beets would have to go the other direction this year, but acknowledged it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Schweitzer says the on-again, off-again harvest will make labor availability a “tricky predicament,” both for shareholders and for the company itself.

This year’s average yield harvested so far is 26.5 tons per acre with a sugar content approaching 19 percent, which is high. Schweitzer says the factories are doing an “excellent job” of handling beets coming into the factory at such high sugar contents. He adds that the company is in “uncharted territory” with that, and that operations have had to be modified, but declined to say whether the slice has had to be slowed to accommodate the higher sugar content.

Tense up north

Pat Mahar, who operates Mahar Farms near Cavalier, N.D., with a son, brother and nephew, figures his beets have had 4.5 inches of rain since full-scale beet harvest started Oct. 3, and had only been able to harvest on eight of those days.

At 70 percent complete on Oct. 23, Mahar says the harvest has been tough. “We tried digging yesterday (Oct. 23) and we couldn’t move,” Mahar says. “We went over to help a neighbor that had sandier-type land.” Farmers typically help each other in such circumstances, Mahar says.

Kelly Erickson, a beet farmer from Hallock, Minn., the farthest northwest town in the state, says beet farmers are “not sleeping as well as we normally would” because of the uncertain harvest. “I think we’re going to stay positive on this,” he says, adding he’s never harvested beets in November before, but will this year. He is optimistic that some warm, dry days can turn things around.

Erickson says he knew of at least two farmers east of Hallock who were able to harvest some beets on nice, light land. He says some of the 30-ton, large-wheeled beet carts that had accumulated in past wet years in the southern Red River Valley in the Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative area near Wahpeton, N.D., had moved north this year.

Daniel Younggren also of Hallock, Minn., and vice president of the Red River Sugarbeet Growers Association, says the situation is difficult. “In this neck of the woods, we have a crop out in the field and the possibility of having to leave it out there,” Younggren says. “You live and die with mother nature and right now we’re living on the edge.” He figures it would take a good four days of harvest to bring the crop in. His progress is 63 percent complete, with about 370 acres left in the field. He had planted 85 percent of his preferred stock acres.

Wet October

Younggren’s crop got 4 to 6 inches of snow Oct. 4, and has had about five days of harvest since then. That brought 2 inches of moisture, and he figures he’s seen another 1.3 inches after that. He says it’s been good to see moisture to help replenish supplies for next year’s crop, but it’s been terrible for beet harvest. The condition of the beet top canopy varies by beet variety and ranges from beets that “could take a hit or two of frost” to others that couldn’t, Younggren says.

If the beets are frozen and can’t be harvested for long-term storage, crop insurance could come into play for some farmers, Younggren says. The area had some beets left in the fields in 1991 and in 2004. He says crop insurance won’t make anyone whole, but can help farmers survive a crop like this. He says it shows how important those provisions are in the 2012 farm bill pending in Washington, possibly in the lame duck session after the Nov. 6 election.

“I hope they get their stuff in a row,” Younggren says of Congress.

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