GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Red River Valley sugar beet farmers suffered through a difficult 2019 crop season and could face tough planting conditions this spring. Even so, there's big-picture reason for optimism, an industry official said.

"You all are the most sustainable beet producers in the world. You're at the forefront of the sustainability discussion," said Scott Herndon, vice president and general counsel of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association in Washington, D.C.

Scott Herdon, American Sugarbeet Growers Association
Scott Herdon, American Sugarbeet Growers Association
He spoke March 12 on the final day at the annual International Sugarbeet Institute in Grand Forks. The two-day event drew attendees from the Upper Midwest, across the country and Canada.

Sustainability is increasingly important in Washington, so it's vital for agriculture to position itself as part of the solution rather than be viewed as part of the the problem, said Herndon, who represents the sugar beet industry before Congress and the Trump administration.

A coalition of farm groups known as Farmers for a Sustainable Future is working hard to spread the good word about agriculture's positive role in sustainability, he said.

More information: sustainablefarming.us.

On a policy level, there's good news for sugar beet farmers, Herndon said. Highlights include:

  • Disaster aid totaling $285 million was approved for sugar beet farmers. "Hopefully, you'll be getting that money soon," Herndon told growers.

  • Federal crop insurance has been approved.

  • Some major trade issues have been resolved.

Sugar beets are an important crop in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota, which Mohamed Khan called "the nation's sugar basket."

Kahn, Extension sugar beet specialist with both the University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University and an organizer of the International Sugarbeet Institute, said it's too early to predict how 2020 planting will go for area sugar beet farmers. Part of the uncertainty is what happens to fields — on which sugar beets might be planted this spring — that couldn't be harvested last fall and still have standing crops on them.

Weather conditions in March and April will be crucial, he said.

Area sugar beet farmers are extremely productive and efficient, Khan said.

"The one thing we can't control is the weather. It can be a blessing. It can be a curse. But we just can't do anything about it," he said.