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Guests examine equipment used to harvest sugar beets on the Alerus Center exhibitor floor as part of day one of the International Sugar Beet Institute on Wednesday, March 14, 2018 in Grand Forks, N.D. Nick Nelson / Agweek

'Sugar basket' show returns - Equipment and more at annual event

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Sugar has become "the new tobacco," the target of strident attacks from health advocates, a sugar industry analyst said.

But the attacks on sugar are unfair and misplaced and need a stronger response, Craig Ruffalo said.

"We as an industry have been far too long on the defensive," he said. "The sugar industry needs to turn this around and you need to be on the offensive. And you need to stick it in their ear. And the first place you start is the school systems and the community you live in."

Ruffalo, vice president of McKeany-Flavell, which provides clients with analysis of many commodities, including sugar, spoke March 14 during the first day of the two-day 56th annual International Sugarbeet Institute at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D. An estimated 1,500 to 1,800 people and at least 120 companies, exhibiting more than $5 million of equipment, are expected to attend.

First-day attendance was held down by unusually pleasant weather that encouraged farmers to haul binned grain or do other outdoor jobs. Organizers were optimistic that attendance would pick up on March 15.

The Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota is the nation's leading sugar beet growing region. The event often is billed as the nation's largest sugar beet trade show.

The area has become the nation's "sugar basket," said Mohamed Khan, extension sugar specialist for North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota, who organized the International Sugarbeet Institute.

The area's sugar beet industry has grown and generally prospered over time, and that reflects the industry's prudent adoption of science and new technology, Khan said.

"Science is the basis of everything we do," he said.

Area growers generally are optimistic as the start of the 2018 crop season nears, said Duane Maatz, executive director of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association.

An early planting start typically leads to better yields at harvest, and it's uncertain when spring weather will allow farmers to get into their fields. But the moisture outlook, at least for now, is on balance favorable, he said.

Sugar prices, which had been very low several years ago, have rallied enough that growers overall can be profitable with average or above yields, Maatz said.

Ruffalo, who specializes in global sweetener markets, said overall supply and demand should keep sugar prices relatively attractive to growers.

"Do we have too much sugar? No, I think we're pretty much in balance," he said.

Different venues

The International Sugarbeet Institute, one of the oldest farm shows in the Upper Midwest, began as a special seminar at the Red River Valley Winter Show in Crookston, Minn. It later became a two-day trade show and educational seminar.

First known as the Sugar Beet Growers Seminar, the event added "International" in 1980, when Manitoba growers began attending. Most people who attend now are from the Upper Midwest, but the event continues to draw international visitors, as well as attendees from across the country.

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

The second day of the 2018 show resumes at 9 a.m. and ends at 3 p.m. March 15. Admission and parking are free.