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Hillsboro, N.D., farmer's hopes for sugar beet crop are shredded

HILLSBORO, N.D. -- Jason Siegert’s eyes welled up as he watched his sugar beet crop go under the corn shredder.

“That’s the hardest part, to have a crop out there and know we couldn’t get it, and now, we have to mow it off,” Siegert said Wednesday, Nov. 13, as he stood in the field east of the Hillsboro American Crystal Sugar Co. factory. The field that Siegert’s son, Lee, was shredding was one of several that make up the 1,050 sugar beet acres Siegert raises with his business partner, Paul Kozojed.

Siegert hoped that by Friday, Nov. 15, the shredding would be done , and he would be finished with the 2019 sugar beet crop.

"We are shredding tops off them for, hopefully, next year’s crop,” Siegert said. “You get rid of the crops, so the tops will dry out and not catch a lot of snow, and things will be more rotten and dry out better, and you won’t have to deal with a matted mess."

Siegert and Kozojed, who call their business SK Farms, had to leave 860 acres of their sugar beets in the field after American Crystal halted the harvest Saturday, Nov. 9. The company made the decision because freezing temperatures and excessive mud made the sugar beets it was receiving unsuitable for processing. American Crystal Sugar Co. received about 7. 5 million tons -- 66% -- of its total crop before it ended the 2019 harvest.

Siegert and Kozojed, like other farmers, who had to leave sugar beets in the field will have to pay American Crystal Sugar Co. $343 per acre they were unable to harvest. The company will use the money to pay its fixed costs.

This, Siegert’s 40th year of farming, has been the most challenging. That’s despite raising sugar beets during the drought of ‘88, when he harvested only 10 to 13 tons of sugar beets per acre. This loss hurts more because the 2019 crop, unlike the 1988 crop, had high yield potential, Siegert said.

“This is probably one of the biggest crops we ever had. We probably had 35, 40 tons per acre,” he said.

The moisture that helped produce the large yields also was the downfall of the sugar beet crop. The spring started out wet and the growing season ended wet.

“We just never got a break,” Siegert said. ”I kept thinking ‘It’s going to dry up and we’re going to be OK.’ Then it rained in August, then it rained in September, and then it rained in October, and I said this (the harvest) is not going to happen.”

Leaving 860 acres of sugar beets in the field this fall will take a big bite of SK Farms' finances.

“I would think we’ll go backwards a considerable sum,” Siegert said.

After receiving crop federal crop insurance payments, SK Farms will lose roughly $200,000 to $300,000 this crop year, he estimated.

Because input costs and machinery costs are high, it will be harder this year to dig out of the red than it was during the farming crisis of the 1980s, Siegert said.

“The numbers are different. The dollars are different. You can go $100,000 backward so quick. Land rent is three times what it was back then," he said. “Back in the ‘80s, I bought a tractor for $40,000. Today you can pay $300,000 to $400,000 for a row-crop tractor -- and you wouldn’t get much.”

Siegert already knows that, under the best circumstances, next spring will be challenging.

“Nobody’s got fall tillage done. Nobody’s got any fertilizer done. We’re going to be under the gun again," he said.

Siegert leans on his Christian faith to help him navigate through the ups and downs of farming, talking to God on his own and taking part in men’s prayer groups at his church.

“It’s easy to be a Christian when things are good. It’s hard to be a Christian when times are tough, but you have to,” Siegert said.