Elusive tool

FAIRVIEW, Mont. - Jeff Bieber was hoping to be among the stampede of U.S. sugar growers who'll plant Roundup Ready beets in the 2008 crop season. Now he isn't sure. Bieber, 36, who lives with his wife, Jessica, and two children about six miles no...

FAIRVIEW, Mont. - Jeff Bieber was hoping to be among the stampede of U.S. sugar growers who'll plant Roundup Ready beets in the 2008 crop season.

Now he isn't sure.

Bieber, 36, who lives with his wife, Jessica, and two children about six miles north of Fairview, Mont., raises 650 acres of flood-irrigated beets for Sidney (Mont.) Sugars Inc. His father and grandfather were growers before him.

Bieber is secretary-treasurer of the Montana-Dakota Sugarbeet Growers Association, which grows beets for Sidney Sugars Inc., a subsidiary of American Crystal Sugar Cooperative of Moorhead, Minn.

Weed woes


Like other beet growers in the area, his crop is bedeviled by kochia, redroot pigweed, lambs quarter, Pennsylvania smartweed and other weeds.

"In the (Yellowstone River) valley, when conditions are right, we can control our weeds pretty well, but some of our acres are located in the hills you see around here, and they have a huge trouble with kochia," Bieber says. "A lot of growers have taken their acres out of (beet) production because they can't control the weeds. They don't have the tool to control the beets grow the beets under areas that use sprinkler irrigation (rather than flood). It just takes too much money to control the weeds."

Growers in the area had hoped to get approved for planting Roundup Ready beets in 2008, but things aren't sounding positive.

Sidney growers met Aug. 10 with Tom Astrup, Sidney Sugars' new chief operating officer. Astrup, also Crystal's chief financial officer and vice president-finance, was flanked by Steve Sing, Sidney Sugars' plant manager.

"They told us that they want us to have the technology; anything that helps us helps them," Bieber says. "But at this point, they will only have tested beets in 2007 in research center plots, and they need two years' tests before they can approve it."

James Horvath, American Crystal's chief executive officer, answers the question about Sidney's Roundup Ready transition this way: "Our only comment on that is that a decision hasn't been made yet. We're in contract negotiations with the growers out there."

The previous contract ran for three years and will expire in April.

"I think the contract will logically not be consummated, from our perspective, until there's a farm bill" passed into law, Horvath says. "We need to know what the environment will be like before we finalize things out there."


The beet seed is not part of the contract itself, but a seed committee of growers and ag staff determines the beet policies, Bieber says.

Waiting and watchingBieber says that early August is a lull when farmers are prepping for next year. "A lot of guys are sitting, waiting for an announcement on Roundup Ready," he says.

Growers would have liked to have a contract in place, so they can go to bankers and work on financing for 2008.

"Everything's hanging," Bieber says. "We've got a grower base that says it's going to cost me $200 to $300 an acre to get my ground ready for beets, or it's going to cost $50 an acre to prep it for small grains."

Horvath says Crystal is empathetic about Sidney growers needing to make plans for next year. He notes that the last contract was final in February or March.

Bieber, who sells beet seed for ACH Seeds and Crystal Seed brand, thinks there's plenty of seed out there.

"I know that my company has Roundup Ready seed on the shelf, ready, that we feel would be a very good fit for Sidney, Mont."

Most of the rest of the industry has announced its intention to plant glyphosate-


tolerant beets in 2008, Bieber says.

"We're just waiting for the go-ahead from management that we can do so here also," he says.

It seems unlikely that Crystal is trying to make Roundup Ready seed available to Red River Valley growers first, Bieber says. Each area has its own disease "package" in seed, but he thinks Crystal officials simply are trying to be prudent.

"If it's good enough for them, it should be good enough for us," he says, noting that two or three years ago growers from his area had proposed a large-scale experiment in Sidney, launching Roundup Ready in Sidney first because of its relative isolation and 40,000-acre base.

"That was our idea," he says. "They didn't want to do that because it was going to cost too much money to keep the sugar separate and marketing it separate from other sugar produced. So, why keep it separate now?"

Bieber says Sidney's acreage has been declining as farmers wait for the Roundup Ready tool. Sidney was at 46,000 acres at their peak about seven years ago, Bieber says.

"This year, we planted 35,700 acres," Bieber says, noting that the acreage is divvied up among about 180 growers. There are exceptions, but acreages per grower tend to be higher in the northern area, compared with south of Sidney.

"We're down quite a ways (in acres), and in the last contract with American Crystal, we had to take a price cut. Some acreage base has come from growers going to third-year rotation for disease problems. Some of it's the fact that we've got an aging grower base. If they'd at least announce their intentions on Roundup Ready, we might be able to encourage our grower base to keep their acres up for next year."

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