Once a farmer, always a farmer, even after 70 sugar beet harvests
The area's sugar beet harvest is under way, and good help is valued and appreciated. On Friday, Oct. 19, Agweek visited two farmers — one 13, the other 88; both enthusiastic — who were operating beet lifters on their respective family farms in the Georgetown, Minn., area.
GEORGETOWN, Minn. — Herb Dahlsad sits in a tractor and operates the implement that lifts sugar beets from the moist, rich Red River Valley field. As he works, he responds to questions, lifting the answers quickly and smoothly from a lifetime of memories.
At 88, 70 years after his first sugar beet harvest, Dahlsad's mind is sharp, his hearing sound and his voice clear. And after all these years, his love of agriculture glows like an amber field of wheat at twilight.
"I still like it. I still like being part of it," he says.
Dahlsad, who grew up on a family farm in the Georgetown, Minn., area, harvested sugar beets for the first time in 1948, when he helped a neighbor with the crop. He's been doing it ever since, except for 1951-55 when he served as an aircraft mechanic for fighter jets in the U.S. Air Force.
After his discharge from the military, he returned to Georgetown and began farming on his own, planting his own beets in 1956.
Today, he occasionally helps his son, Rodney, who raises wheat, soybeans and sugar beets, especially during harvest. Many farmers struggle to find temporary help during sugar beet harvest.
Rodney Dahlsad smiles when asked tongue-in-cheek if he could find any other part-time employee as experienced as his father.
"No, probably not," Rodney says, who's clearly proud of his father.
"We get along good," Herb says of his son.
Supposedly Herb retired in 1994 — 26 years ago, when he was 62 — which means he "got away from the bookkeeping." But hands-on, active-in-the-field ag remains a valued part of his life.
When Agweek visited, he was wrapping up a 2 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift lifting beets.
"We cheated a little today. We didn't get going until 4 a.m. But I was up at 2," he says. Asked if he's a little tired, he grins and says, "This is nothing. We've gone 26, 27 hours straight (in beet harvest)."
Agriculture, and long days on the family farm, have always been part of Herb's life.
His father, Martin, moved to the Georgetown area in 1923 to farm, and the family raised corn and milked cows by hand. Herb says he enjoyed dairy cattle, but "didn't like cleaning out the barn" — the only thing in agriculture he confesses to disliking.
The physical work on the farm helped prepare him for the military, he says.
"I used to be pretty strong (with good endurance). When I went into the military, we'd do calisthenics. The others would get tired after a few push-ups, but it didn't bother me any," he says.
Herb got out of the cattle business in the 1960s on doctor's orders. He was putting in too many long days, starting early and finishing late, he was told. Herb continued to raise crops, however.
Herb was the youngest of five brothers, all of whom went into farming. He's the last of the five still living.
Asked about his experiences with beets through the years, Herb says, "Well, some of the beet business runs together." Nonetheless, he pulls up dates and other facts, many of them decades-old, with an alacrity that many people of any age would admire.
Beets were highly labor-intensive when he started, with migrant workers playing a crucial role. Today, technology has largely replaced hand labor, and area sugar beet operations have gotten bigger and more productive:
A few examples:
• Dahlsad began in 1956 with two-row beet lifters and now uses eight-row lifters.
• When he began, a loaded truck generally carried 6 tons of beets Today, they carry 23 or 24 tons when loaded. "And when I started, we'd get four or five loads a day. Now we can get 30 loads," even though the modern loads are much bigger.
• His beets yielded between 11 and 12 tons per back in 1956. This year, the Dahlsads hope to harvest 28 or 29 tons per acre of beets.
The sugar beet harvest — typically referred to the "campaign" by people involved in it — can be stressful, especially when the weather is uncooperative.
"I've seen both ends. Years when we didn't even take the equipment out of the shed (because of bad weather) and other years when he got over 30 (tons per acre)," he says.
Sugar beets can be controversial in ag circles. Farmers who don't grow the crop sometimes say it's too profitable. Farmers who grow beets say the crop's profitability offsets poor prices of other crops and allows them to stay in business.
Dwelling on criticism doesn't fit Herb's sunny personality. "I don't like to grumble," he says.
But, "I've been picked on (for growing beets). They (critics) can see the $20 bills lying out on the field, but there's a lot of money that goes into putting that crop in and getting it out. And it's the crop that pays the bills," Herb says.
Year by year
Herb and his wife, Irene, who live in nearby Moorhead, Minn., have been married 62 years. "She's been putting up with me that long," he says.
Irene has health issues, which could curtail Herb's involvement in future harvests.
But his own health is good, and he enjoys harvest as much as ever. So he hopes to return in 2019 and beyond, when he's in his 90s.
"I don't like TV, and I like to work with my hands," including oil painting, he says. "So coming out a few days to run the combine (during wheat and soybean harvest) and to run this (the lifter) — it's fun."