Minnesota sugarbeet farm works 'to thrive and to survive' with sustainability efforts
This edition of the Sustainability Spotlight features Nate Hultgren. Hultgren is vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association and farms with his brother and father in west central Minnesota near Willmar. His business, Hultgren Farms, raises 1,200 acres of sugarbeets, as well as corn, soybeans, alfalfa, sweet corn, peas, kidney beans and beef cattle on 6,000 acres.
This edition of the Sustainability Spotlight features Nate Hultgren. Hultgren is vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association and farms with his brother and father in west central Minnesota near Willmar. His business, Hultgren Farms, raises 1,200 acres of sugarbeets, as well as corn, soybeans, alfalfa, sweet corn, peas, kidney beans and beef cattle on 6,000 acres. The farm is also a partner in neighboring Meadow Star Dairy, which milks 8,000 cows. Nate is a fourth-generation farmer. He and his wife, Jaime, have 5 children: Lily, Nora, Elias, Ruby and Oliver. Nate also serves on the board of directors at Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative.
When asked what sustainability means to him, Hultgren replied, “When I think of sustainability, my definition is more holistic. It has gone back and forth between the ability for our family farm to thrive and to survive. If we don’t maintain a healthy relationship with the land, water, and people around us, our business and way of life would become unsustainable.”
Hultgren described measures he has taken to enhance his efficiency and sustainability: “While serving on the board of directors and as president of the Minnesota Corn Growers, my brother Noah had some good discussions with several soil health groups and started to give some thought as to ways we could improve our land while also reducing inputs. At the same time, I was fortunate to have a working partnership with a large dairy operation adjacent to our farm. Noah and I were able to carve a path forward that involved reducing the amount of both spring and fall tillage while steering a portion of our fertilizer plan away from commercial fertilizers by adding manure from the dairy. We participated in forage crops for the dairy as well, which in silage years allowed us to go away from moldboard plowing prior to planting beets due to the reduced corn residue. This also allowed us to do one less spring tillage pass before planting beets since we didn’t have to level out heavy plowing. By reducing heavy tillage and limiting ourselves to no-till and minimum-till strategies on our sandy, irrigated soils, we have seen a noticeable reduction in the amount of wind and water erosion while retaining more spring soil moisture for planting our beets into.
“We have also added alfalfa to our crop rotation to extend the years between beets. Of course, alfalfa adds some nitrogen credit back to the soil, but we also knew it helped reduce winter wind erosion, preserved moisture and improved soil aggregates.
“In the interest of reducing labor, fuel and soil compaction, we added a self-propelled harvester and track beet cart. This keeps trucks out of the field and allows us the option to do very little tillage after beet harvest and prior to the next crop. We are able to harvest with about half the people required under the conventional system we had five years ago, with 25% less fuel and a similar reduction in maintenance.
“As do most SMBSC growers, we use cover crops on our beet acres at planting. But we have also been experimenting with cover crops (mostly winter rye) on fields of any crop that are harvested early enough in the fall to get established before winter. This year, we are harvesting and cleaning winter rye for seed to use on more of our acres in 2022. We are planning to seed more of this cover crop if we get the opportunity this fall, and also planning to no-till plant sugarbeets into the stubble next year.
“Like most SMBSC growers, we are adding pattern drainage tile whenever possible to extend the soil water holding capacity while making our land more workable in tough weather conditions. We have added GPS and variable rate controls as we’ve built irrigation systems to only apply water when and where it is needed most.”
Hultgren also explained what sustainability practices have been successful versus which have not been successful: “We have found that no-till has its limitations for us in our heavier soils. Sugarbeets need the soil temperature to warm quickly in the spring, and having too much residue seems to be a limitation. We have not properly vetted strip-till to see if this gets us around that issue. There are challenges surrounding beet production and no-till, such as incorporating residual herbicides (which have become a must for fighting resistant weeds) and fertilizer. While building up fertility with manure has worked well in areas, we still have a large number of acres that cannot be reached by manure. We are far more convinced that the tillage reduction is a success on the sandy, irrigated soils.”
Hultgren explained whether he sees the potential for his work to be rewarded by private industry or the government: “Our farm has a business venture that deals in wetland credits. We build credit banks by converting marginal crop land into permanent wetland easements with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. We are using this environmental credit model to develop carbon credits and sell them on a secondary platform. We would rather see private industry buy these credits so that there is a more need-based market for them. I am maintaining a healthy skepticism until we start seeing actual payments going to farmers. There are a lot of companies jumping on the bandwagon, and we don’t want to sign up for anything that doesn’t have a realistic and reliable compensation schedule attached to it.
“Whether I agree with the existence or urgency of addressing climate change or not, as regulatory bodies continue to squeeze businesses to offset their carbon footprint, we want to be ready to implement logical and effective practices to improve farm profit opportunities while also making sure that we are not hamstrung at the farm or cooperative level by these same climate regulations. We want to be out in front to be sure we can use carbon sequestration to keep running.”
Hultgren continued the discussion by addressing how his sustainability efforts have improved his bottom line or made his crops more resilient to weather issues: “Reducing tillage and overall trips across beet fields has saved us dollars on the expense side, and by pairing this with pattern drainage tile and using large tire and track harvesters and carts, we have been better able to deal with extremely wet conditions to get our beets harvested. While the jury is still out on whether we see any yield INCREASES from reduced tillage, the fact that we have not seen a DECREASE while reducing our inputs is encouraging. Plus, we realize the value of the soil moisture we maintain when very dry conditions occur. Wind is also a factor on the prairie, and by retaining some residue and using cover crops, we are able to retain the value of precious topsoil.”
When asked to describe past and potential future sustainability changes, he stated, “On a per-acre basis, our tractors and harvesters use 25% less fuel than they did a decade ago. In the case of seed and fertilizer, we have been using variable rate technology for 10 years and while this doesn’t typically cut the total usage, it places more of these expensive inputs in areas of the field with more of a yield ceiling while conserving them in places with a low yield potential. In this end this is more efficient because we end up yielding more for the same input level.
“Of course, GE crop traits such as Roundup Ready beets were a huge addition to our portfolio, but even as weed resistance has crept in and RR isn’t the 'catch-all' herbicide it once was, new weed fighting technologies are emerging to help fight these resistant weeds and we will certainly embrace them. To me, using GE crops has been a no-brainer for our farm as we attempt to implement minimum tillage because they allow us to plant into higher-residue environments or no-till in some cases. And since we are able to control the weeds without stirring the soil, we release less carbon, preserve moisture, use less labor and fuel, and require less equipment. When I started farming in 1999, a 22-ton beet crop was the norm … now we feel that our yield target should be closer to 30 tons per acre and we are doing this with the same amount of fuel, fertilizer, seed and labor. So, on a per-ton basis, today’s beet farmers have reduced resource consumption on by over one-third! Much of this change can be attributed to advancements in seed genetics and biotechnology.
“As we attempt to reduce herbicide use and increase its effectiveness, the use of smart sprayers and drones will help. As labor gets harder to find, I think that automation in areas such as chemical and fertilizer application will need to evolve. Transportation of harvested crops could also have added automation, whether it be the carting in the field or even trucking to the receiving site. There is already some automation taking place at our beet co-op’s piling sites, and I only see that continuing there and in our factories.
“In order to protect our soil during the offseason (winter), we will need to develop ways to seed cover crops before harvest. Perhaps seed companies could develop a hearty, cold-weather germination winter wheat or rye variety that could be planted after bean harvest in October so that it gets established enough before freeze-up in order to hold soil during the winter.
“As nutrient application continues to be more and more regulated, the use of time-release and urase inhibitors will become more commonplace. We currently use a product called ESN (time-release urea) on our irrigated land to assure that nutrients aren’t washed through the soil by frequent irrigation.”
When asked what innovations the industry needs the most he responded, “I think that innovations that reduce labor requirements would be the most beneficial. Sugarbeets are a very labor-intensive crop, and we will need to continue to utilize telemetry, GPS and robotics to lower the headcount of our harvest staff.”
“In order to be more efficient, seed genetics can continue to focus on pushing more sugar into the root so that we are bringing in more sugar versus every pound of non-sugars to make our factory run more efficiently and deliver a higher margin back to the grower. We have learned that economics work best when the fixed costs of our processing facilities are spread out over more pounds of sugar, and every ton of non-sugar adds to expense.
“I imagine that most farmers feel the same way as I do in that they would prefer not to spray more chemicals or apply more fertilizer if they can help it, so if I could wave a magic wand of innovation, it would be to have GE developments that augment fertility and continue to fight disease and weeds through plant traits.”
Hultgren offered the following advice to fellow growers: “You are going to see a lot of players surfacing in the carbon market — at this point, focus your efforts and money on things that affect your bottom line on their own. If you’re going to engage in a practice that uses someone else’s definition of sustainability, make sure there are well-defined timelines, expectations and most of all, that there’s a clear path to getting a payment that is profitable for you after jumping through all of the hoops."
He then described ways growers can better communicate their efforts: “At Hultgren Farms, we’ve found that engaging in frequent social media posts, a website and a newsletter hit several demographics that potentially care about what we’re doing. Having a ready-made portal to subscribe outside parties to, whether they are friend or skeptic, makes it easy for you to be honest and open about what you’re doing on the farm to sustain your family’s legacy and take care of the land, water, crops and animals.
“We have also found that making our facility tour-ready at all times makes employees think more about the facility as they want to be proud of where they work. It enables us to tell our story to outside groups by letting them walk around and actually see what we do every day. It opens a lot of eyes, and once a skeptic sees that these are family operations, pouring their heart and soul into their family legacy, those attitudes can often be disarmed.
"This fall, we are planning a community picnic and inviting neighbors, landlords, family and friends to learn more about our sugarbeet operation and the other things we do here on our farm. Having this one-on-one face time with folks allows them to ask questions and better understand who we are and what we do.”
In describing additional education efforts, Hultgren said, “We have hosted political candidates and sitting members from federal and state offices here from both sides of the aisle to talk about farm issues. The chairman and ranking member of the U.S. House Ag Committee were here several times. It was important for them to see that in order to do business the right way, it requires more effort and financial investment and so maintaining strong farm programs for efficiency improvements that benefit the U.S. sustainability landscape as a whole are important. We let them know that when farmers are strong, their rural communities are strong as well.
“I think the most critical thing for the food supply chain to understand is that sustainability as they define it comes at a financial cost. As I discussed at the opening of this piece, farmers have no problem understanding how to be sustainable. But if food companies or the regulatory agencies connected to those food supply chains want to see something specific implemented as a product feature or source, farmers are willing to do it but they’ll need to capture a premium for doing the extra work.”
When asked whether he has been able to change misconceptions he said, “The most vivid example I can think of is when we hosted a group of junior high kids from inner city St. Paul at our farm. These kids were so excited and in awe of our farm equipment and the amount of food we produce here … and they left with huge smiles on their faces. I think a bunch of them said as they were leaving that they wanted to be farmers someday! I could tell by the questions they were asking me that day that they had been fed several inaccuracies about how farms operate and it gave me a good feeling to be able to dispel those misconceptions.”
In closing, Hultgren said, “I am very fortunate to be a part of the sugar industry which is very unique. We do a lot of great things and I hope that growers will join me in telling of the story of how we are constantly trying to improve.”
Scott Herndon serves as the Vice President and General Counsel of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association in Washington, D.C. He represents growers on all issues that impact the sugar industry, including sustainability. On sustainability policy, he works with Farmers for a Sustainable Future, www.sustainablefarming.us, a coalition of 21 farm and ranch groups committed to environmental and economic sustainability. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.