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Published June 09, 2014, 09:32 AM

Sugar growers work toward sustainability

Casey Hoverson is proud of his family’s production of sugar beets, potatoes and rotational crops, and he’s happy to tell the world about it.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

MANVEL, N.D. — Casey Hoverson is proud of his family’s production of sugar beets, potatoes and rotational crops, and he’s happy to tell the world about it.

Hoverson Brothers is one of 27 shareholder operations in American Crystal Sugar Co. that have signed up for the Field to Market program — a nationwide sustainability plan that starts with collecting data on inputs and equipment. The information is used to measure seven key sustainability indicators: land use, conservation, soil carbon, irrigation water use, water quality, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Technically, there are two Hoverson farms based near Larimore, N.D. Casey, 32, and his brother, Michael, 36, are in a cropping partnership together (Hoverson Brothers).

Hoverson Brothers grows 20,000 acres of crops — sugar beets, corn, wheat, seed canola, soybeans and dry edible beans — as rotation crops for Hoverson Farms, a processing potato operation headed by their father, Carl Hoverson, in partnership with R.D. Offutt Co.

Casey, sitting in the cab of his tractor during sugar beet planting, says the Field to Market program was a natural choice for his farm because he already has done some of the required reporting for other programs, especially in potatoes and seed canola.

A buzzword

Tyler Grove, ag strategy development manager for American Crystal in Moorhead, Minn., is in charge of the Field to Market project. Grove says the farmers involved so far have a particular desire to learn more about what they can do to help the company.

“It’s a win-win, looking toward the future for sustainability and assisting the company in their endeavor to be sustainable,” Grove says.

American Crystal, with 740 farming operations, got involved, in part, at the encouragement of General Mills, one of its larger sugar customers. General Mills has identified sugar as one of its 10 priority ingredients for strides in sustainability by 2020. Grove says American Crystal is the first U.S. beet sugar company he knows of to join Field to Market. The company joined in August 2013.

Based in Minneapolis, General Mills is a Fortune 500 company. It is most famous for brands such as Cheerios and Wheaties.

Sustainability has gotten to be a buzzword that more customers are tuned to, even though there are varying definitions.

“We evaluated programs and participated in sustainability questionnaires” for various programs, Grove says. “We decided Field to Market was the most robust, or inclusive program for sustainability for us.”

Improving production, stewardship

Field to Market considers crop data over an entire rotation regimen on a farm. In the Hoversons’ case, for example, potato production already is in a separate but similar data collection program for J.R. Simplot in Grand Forks, N.D.

“They were one of the farms that had the analytics,” Grove says of the Hoversons. “What we recognize was a farm that wanted more information about their production. That’s the type of farm we’d like to work with — those that are inquisitive, curious — wanting to improve their production, but also the stewardship aspect of it.”

Participants are keeping detailed records and creating reports. The figures are analyzed through software criteria developed by Field to Market and processed through farm management software.

“The participants are willing to take that extra step to see how their farm compares to others and to look for that continuing improvement,” Grove says.

Hoverson acknowledges that most farmers in business today must keep track of their inputs, but with the Hoversons the reporting is probably more computerized.

“We’re looking at ways to get better, but we’re also finding practices we employ that are already sustainable,” Grove says, noting that it makes farmers more comfortable with this type of program.

Grove says one of the basic sustainability issues is the prediction of 9 billion mouths to feed globally by 2050.

“That’s presented, over and over,” Grove says. “What we’re doing in the present is finding out how to feed these people with fewer resources. That’s the overall goal of sustainability and, in a sense, is a definition.”

Where credit’s due

American Crystal can be credited for some things it’s already doing, without changing a thing. For example, almost none of American Crystal’s beets in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota use irrigation water, a positive in the world of sustainability.

Growers already are working to reduce the “passes” they make across fields, combining some of the chemical applications, which also is good for sustainability. Cover crops, reduced tillage and residue management are being studied continuously.

It’s also important to closely manage plant food availability to the crop. American Crystal growers already have been doing this through a quality program that gives producers an incentive to use only enough nitrogen fertilizer to get a good yield, but then back off as the crop approaches harvest. The practice increases the sugar content of the beet, but also fits with the sustainability goal.

Farmers who use wheat in a rotation also receive a sustainability credit.

“There’s often an intersection between productivity and sustainability,” Grove says. “We’re early in the program, but that’s where we’re at — trying to evaluate this. It’s preliminary to know where this might take us. We’re in the seeking phase.”

Telling the world

Casey Hoverson says reporting inputs and data to consumers isn’t necessarily convenient, but he says by doing some of it up front, farmers can solidify confidence with consumers and perhaps avoid unreasonable mandatory reporting.

The Hoverson farms have a lot of factors to measure and report. They farm 25,000 acres, including 5,000 acres of potatoes and 700 acres of sugar beets. Most of it is in Grand Forks County in North Dakota, but a little stretches into Minnesota’s Polk County.

Casey and Michael are both veterans of the National Potato Leadership Institute, which offers training to speak out on behalf of your crops. Casey and Carl are both on the National Potato Promotion Board.

“Anytime we can get the consumers to learn about our products better, it just helps us farmers in the long run,” Casey says. “We keep track of a lot of stuff, especially with Simplot, we’re in a program called the GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) program for [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] — keeping track of your inputs. J.R. Simplot needs us to do that, too, for their markets. We’ve been doing it slowly for the last 10 years, more and more every year, especially with the GAP program for the fresh produce market.”

USDA started GAP after an E. coli scare in lettuce several years ago. It’s geared toward fruit and vegetable producers, providing independent audits for suppliers throughout the production chain. The program applies to the Hoversons, even though their potatoes are largely for the process market. The program is administered by USDA and the North Dakota State Seed Department, which conducts an annual audit.

The Hoversons are interested in environmental performance. They won a national environmental stewardship award from the National Potato Council in 2013 for many things, including chemical conservation using spraying technology that prevents double-spraying. Most of their pivots are variable-rate pivots and can use variable spraying and fertilizing techniques. Seeding units shut off to avoid double-planting, cutting inputs by at least 10 percent. Back at the headquarters, they have fertilizer and fuel containment systems that exceed state standards.

Casey says chemicals cost money, so the grower doesn’t want to use more than absolutely necessary to produce a crop. It’s also good for the environment.

Protect and sustain

While some critics dismiss such sustainability efforts as “greenwashing,” Grove says his company sees it as worthwhile and takes it seriously. Field to Market is a starting point for American Crystal — a bench-marking, he says.

“You have to measure something before you can manage it,” says Grove, who headed the agricultural field staff in the East Grand Forks, Minn., factory district before taking his new post in February 2013. “We’re going to look at where we’re at and see where we need to go.”

While definitions vary for the word sustainability, there are common threads. One farmer in American Crystal’s program summed it up in one word — stewardship.

“It’s the land,” Grove says. “They’re looking to protect and sustain what they have. It’s what they’ve done over the years to protect their land for the next generations — their kids and grandkids.”

Casey says that’s what drives his involvement — a view toward the future for a farm that has been in his family for more than 100 years. While some see techniques such as organic production as sustainable, Casey thinks other factors, such as land productivity, must be considered.

Casey thinks of Field to Market as a program to help consumers know more.

“I think the more they know the less confusion they will have,” he says. “We can tell them our point of view first — what our inputs are. If we’re not willing to give it to them, someone else will.

“As we go on, we want to make sure our farms prosper,” he says. “We need to make sure we don’t waste inputs. I think we all push each other forward at the same time. If farmers get ahead of what’s required, we’ll be at the lead and it won’t be much of a shock. And maybe our product will be on top — Crystal sugar.”