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VIDEO: Sugar beet industry bouncing back

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The 2016 sugar beet crop isn't even in the ground, so it's far too soon for financial projections. But early signs for the area's sugar beet industry -- an economic pillar of the Red River Valley -- are encouraging.

2397803+031716.A.GFH sugarbeet1Floor.jpg
Guests of the 54th International Sugarbeet Institute walk amongst agricultural equipment on the arena floor of the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, ND on March 16, 2016. The event took place on March 16 & 17, 2016, and included both exhibits and speakers such as Jim Wiesemeyer, senior vice president of Informa Economics, Inc., and David Berg, President and CEO of American Crystal Sugar Company. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - The 2016 sugar beet crop isn't even in the ground, so it's far too soon for financial projections. But early signs for the area's sugar beet industry - an economic pillar of the Red River Valley - are encouraging.

Jim Wiesemeyer understands the optimism. He also sees reason for caution.

"The GMO issue is something we need to be concerned about," said Wiesemeyer, senior vice president of Informa Economics Inc. in Washington, D.C. The company provides agricultural research, analysis and consulting.

Wiesemeyer, a veteran observer of agricultural issues in the nation’s capital, spoke March 16 at the 54th International Sugarbeet Institute in Grand Forks, N.D. The two-day event, which rotates annually between Grand Forks and Fargo, N.D., wraps up March 17.

An estimated 1,500 to 1,800 people and at least 120 companies, exhibiting more than $5 million in products and equipment, will participate this year. Doors opened at 9 a.m. and closed mid-afternoon, both days. Admittance and parking were free.

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The Red River Valley of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota is the nation’s leading sugar beet growing region, and the Institute sometimes is billed as the nation’s largest sugar beet trade show.

The split arrangement between Grand Forks and Fargo serves growers in both the northern and southern end of the Red River Valley and seems to be working well, said Mohamed Khan, extension sugar beet specialist for North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota and a Sugarbeet Institute organizer.

The show attracts members of the sugar beet industry from southern Canada, hence the “International,” as well as elsewhere in the U.S.

The price of most crops grown in the Red River Valley are depressed, darkening the profit outlook for 2016. But sugar beet prices, which had struggled recently, have risen after the U.S. sugar industry last year won a battle that stopped imports of subsidized Mexican sugar from entering the country.

With the new crop season approaching, "We're optimistic," said Duane Maatz, executive director of the Fargo-based Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association.

Moisture conditions vary across the region, but generally are favorable, said Maatz and other Sugarbeet Institute attendees.

Wiesemeyer's wide-ranging presentation included international economics, U.S. sugar policy and the ongoing presidential campaign.

Economic problems in developing countries, which hold the best long-term prospects for increased U.S. food exports, are a concern, he said.

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So is the relatively strong U.S. dollar, which makes American ag exports more expensive for foreign consumers, he said.

The successful effort to stop subsidized Mexican sugar imports wasn't a complete victory for the U.S. sugar industry, but it was a victory nonetheless, he said.

His prediction is that U.S. sugar prices will be "range-bound: limited upside, limited downside," which means they have little chance of rising or falling substantially this year. That range should be high to give producers an opportunity to make money this year, provided the weather cooperates and allows good yields, Wiesemeyer said.

Historically, sugar beets have been profitable for Red River Valley farmers even when other crops are not, which could be the case again this year, Maatz said.

GMO worries Public concern about GMO food, or food that comes from products with genetically modified organisms, could work against sugar and the rest of U.S. agriculture, Wiesemeyer said

"If there's one issue in agriculture (to be concerned about), this is it - and it's growing," he said.

Fifty-five percent of U.S. sugar comes from sugar beets, and virtually all the sugar beet seed used in the country has been genetically modified to resist the herbicide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup.

Wiesemeyer noted that the U.S Senate on March 16 rejected an effort involving a national GMO labeling law supported by most food companies and major ag groups. They say the alternative, many individual state GMO labeling laws, would be too costly and complicated.

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Berg to speak David Berg, who will retire as CEO of American Crystal Sugar in August, will speak at the Sugarbeet Institute at 10:25 a.m. March 17.

"The history of sugar has always interested me, and that's what I'm going to talk about," he said.

American Crystal, based in Moorhead, Minn., is the nation's largest sugar producer.

2397804+031716.A.GFH_.sugarbeet1JimWiesemeyer01.jpg
Jim Wiesemeyer, senior vice president at Informa Economics, Inc., delivers his presentation "Washington Update: Sugar Policy, Economy, Trade Policy, Elections & Impacts" to attendees of the 54th Annual International Sugarbeet Institute on March 16, 2016 at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, ND. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)

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