Staggered end

FARGO, N.D. -- Sugar beet processing season is coming to a close in the Red River Valley, even as the planting season is revving up. Jeff Schweitzer, spokesman for American Crystal Sugar Co. in Moorhead, Minn., says most of the factories are down...

American Crystal Sugar Co.
An American Crystal Sugar Co. beet piling station south of Grafton, N.D., was busy on March 23 but is quiet now. The company has moved slicing operations into its most protected factory storage facilities and will shut down slice operations starting April 26 in Moorhead, Minn. (Mikkel Pates, Agweek)

FARGO, N.D. -- Sugar beet processing season is coming to a close in the Red River Valley, even as the planting season is revving up.

Jeff Schweitzer, spokesman for American Crystal Sugar Co. in Moorhead, Minn., says most of the factories are down to processing beets in cold storage sheds. In some cases, the remaining beet storages are equipped with chilling mat covers, with large refrigeration units that can be employed if necessary.

Factories are scheduled to end slicing in the coming weeks on a staggered basis: Moorhead, Minn., April 26; Hillsboro, N.D., April 30; East Grand Forks, Minn., May 3; Crookston, Minn., May 5, and Drayton, N.D., May 6.

One of the biggest factors affecting beet storage is that this past winter was 15 degrees warmer than average. In March there were many days that were 40 degrees warmer than normal.

"We would normally expect that we'd see that warm weather affecting our piles. However, beet storage has held up pretty well. That has to do with storage techniques we have -- and monitoring systems."


Most of the outside piles that the company intended to be frozen did get frozen, but "just not as hard as in the past" because the long stretches of really cold weather didn't materialize. Schweitzer says there was some deterioration on pile ends and edges but says, "We're fairly pleased with how the beets have stored."

Odor concerns

Crystal is concerned that the warm weather might increase the likelihood of objectionable odors, Schweitzer says. He says the company has put "a lot of assets" into controlling odor at Moorhead, East Grand Forks and other plants, but that weather conditions affect odors. "We've been pretty good on odors for the past four or five years" but the warm weather may "challenge some of our systems," he says. On the optimistic side of the issue, the odor problem could be mitigated by the early close to the slicing season.

Meanwhile, about 30,000 acres of sugar beets have been planted as of April 16. Crystal has plans for planting 439,000 acres in 2012, Schweitzer says. That's up from last year's initial plantings of 425,000. More were eventually allowed because of the spring planting delays. Some 452,000 acres were planted and 445,000 acres were harvested. The company brought in 9.2 million tons, while it typically shoots for 10.8 million tons.

Here are reports from other area companies:

• Minn-Dak Farmers Co-op: Tom Knudsen, vice president of agriculture at Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D., says that company's beet slice ended in late March, the earliest wrap-up in at least 10 years. Yield on the 2011 crop was 16.2 tons per acre, on the 120,000 harvested acres.

Planting was 44 percent complete for the 2012 crop at Minn-Dak as of April 16. People went in with marginal to poor moisture, and that's all upside-down," Knudsen says. The entire area has received 1.5 to 3 inches in moisture within the last week (April 8-14).

"We're taking a time out to let it dry out," he says.


Knudsen says farmers are again being allowed to plant Roundup ready sugar beets in 2012, but legal challenges to the genetically modified beets have yet to be settled beyond that. For now, farmers will continue their regimen of triple-containment of seed, paperwork on the chain of custody, and "bolter" plant removal. Ironically, farmers also will deal with increasing concerns about weed resistance to glyphosate (Roundup), but Knudsen sounds optimistic about that, noting the industry historically has adapted to changing conditions and circumstances.

• Sidney Sugars Inc.: Only 240 acres had been planted as of April 17, says Steve Sing, general manager of the plant in Sidney, Mont., which is a subsidiary of American Crystal Sugar Co. Farmers are waiting to get water in the irrigation ditches, so they can "water-in" the beets. The company has 32,890 acres contracted this year. In 2011, the company contracted 31,500 acres. The recent low point was three years ago, at 15,000 acres, when the beet company was competing with sharply higher malting barley and wheat crops. Unlike shareholders of American Crystal, growers are paid on a contract that includes a built-in spread sheet, based on a combination of sugar content and the price of sugar, Sing says.

Russ Fullmer, agricultural manager, says planting is still a bit ahead of the typical April 20 optimal planting date. He says there didn't seem to be good prospects for helpful rain, moving ahead. He says long-term forecasts that indicate a 60 percent chance of rain have turned to 20 percent when the date approaches. "It's just the opposite of last year." Grain is coming up in the area, but is spotty, he says.

• Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Co-op: Todd Geselius, vice president for agriculture for the Renville, Minn.-based cooperative, says about 50 percent of that co-op's planting was complete as of April 17. He says planting is about 10 days to two weeks ahead of normal. Farmers there were happy with a rain early in the week of April 15 that brought 1 to 2 inches to most of the co-op territory. He says there was a scare on April 17 with 30-degree temperatures in some areas, but he wasn't aware of any damage issues. "If there are beets out of the ground, there are very few," he says. The co-op will plant 128,000 acres this year, up from the 120,000 acres planted last year and up from the typical plantings in the 118,000 acre level.

"We had a short crop last year," Geselius says. The co-op ended its slice campaign in mid-February. Typically the juice campaign goes into July but this year they'll be done in the first part of June.

"One of our goals -- we have customers who want sugar in August -- so the only way we're going to supply that is to start lifting and processing in August." Southern Minnesota Beet sells its sugar through Cargill.

"Right now we need to continue to get some rain this spring," he says. The recent rain will get the crop up and growing, but before that there hadn't been much precipitation since last summer, so subsoil moisture is depleted.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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