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Published March 12, 2014, 04:36 PM

Times are tough in sugar, but approaching planting season kindles optimism

Kelly Brantner, a fourth-generation sugar beet farmer, has seen tough times before. Another planting season is nearing, however, and Brantner and others involved in the area’s sugar beet industry say optimism is in order.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Kelly Brantner, a fourth-generation sugar beet farmer, has seen tough times before.

“But it doesn’t get much tougher than this,” Brantner, a Felton, Minn., farmer and secretary of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, said of historically low sugar prices that have crippled his industry’s profitability.

Another planting season is nearing, however, and Brantner and others involved in the area’s sugar beet industry say optimism is in order.

Brantner attended the 52nd annual International Sugarbeet Institute March 12. The conference, the world’s largest indoor sugar beet trade show, concludes March 13 at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D. Doors open at 8:45 a.m. and close mid-afternoon on March 13.

The Red River Valley is the nation’s leading sugar beet growing region. An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people will attend the trade show, and about 125 companies will exhibit their products. Every exhibit has a connection to the sugar beet industry.

Bob Cournia, the Institute’s longtime exhibit coordinator, died in a traffic accident Nov. 7, 2013. Cournia, 67, was a lifetime farmer in Crookston, Minn. His image was displayed on video screens on the walls of the Alerus Center’s exhibit hall.

“Bob’s looking down on us,” Brantner said.

Cournia was honored in a special presentation at the Institute on March 12.

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

When the event was last held in Grand Forks in 2012, sugar prices and industry enthusiasm were high. Since then, record world production and growing Mexican imports have pushed down prices to their lowest levels since the 1980s.

Sugar prices, though still low, have risen a bit lately, said Larry Ronsberg, general manager-beet seed division of Moorhead, Minn.-based American Crystal Sugar Co. He helped staff the cooperative’s booth at the Institute.

Still, growers are frustrated by the growing import of subsidized Mexican sugar under the North American Free Trade Act, Brantner said.

“That just shouldn’t be happening,” he said.

To make things worse, prices of other crops grown by Red River Valley farmers also have fallen, he said.

Historically, growing sugar beets has helped area farmers overcome low prices for other crops. With sugar prices low, too, that won’t happen now, Brantner said.

Cyclical business

Sugar beets, like agriculture in general, are cyclical. Sometimes beets offer attractive profits, sometimes they don’t, said Mike Sauer of Wahpeton, N.D.-based Allied Beet Service, which bills itself as “Your Sugar Beet Equipment Specialists.”

Sauer, who has many years of experience in the sugar beet industry, said beet farmers probably will struggle to be profitable this year. He also said he’s optimistic they’ll at least break even.

Exhibitors at the Institute said it’s too soon to tell how farmers’ spending will be affected by poor sugar prices.

Farmers generally have a “wait-and-see attitude,” said Nathan Jutlia, who was exhibiting Wil-Rich chisel plows at the Institute.

John Noorloos, president of Ropa North America, also exhibited his products at the Institute. His company distributes the Ropa line, which is made in Germany, in Canada and the United States.

One of the Ropa products on display in Grand Forks was a $750,000 self-propelled harvester that Noorloos said can help sugar beet farmers become more efficient.

Whether sugar prices are high or low, “you need to be efficient,” he said.

The Red River Valley Sugarbeet Museum, located in Crookston, also has a booth at the Institute. In contrast to the big, modern machinery on exhibit, the museum displayed a small combine used to harvest sugar beets in the 1940s.

“Sugar beets have been around a long time (in the Red River Valley).” said Allan Dragseth, an Eldred, Minn., sugar beet farmer who’s associated with the museum.

Planting nears

An early spring in 2012 — when the Institute was held in Grand Forks — allowed area farmers to plant beets and other crops earlier than usual.

But spring came late in 2013, and many area sugar beet growers planted their crops much later than they wanted.

Ideally, area sugar beets are planted in the last 10 days of April.

Favorable weather during the next five to six weeks would allow that to happen this year, said Mohamed Khan, extension sugar beet specialist for North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota and chairman of the International Sugarbeet Institute.

Most area fields have enough moisture to help beets get off to a good start this growing season, Khan said.

Brantner said the approach of planting makes him “hopeful. When you’re in farming, you need to be.”