Sugar, corn producers face uncharted harvest

FARGO, N.D. -- The Red River Valley's economically important sugar beet harvest is trying to come to a close. It is near the end for American Crystal Sugar Co., based in Moorhead, Minn., but far from finished at Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative of Wa...

FARGO, N.D. -- The Red River Valley's economically important sugar beet harvest is trying to come to a close. It is near the end for American Crystal Sugar Co., based in Moorhead, Minn., but far from finished at Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative of Wahpeton, N.D.

"It's a battle," says Craig Hertsgaard of Kindred, N.D., who farms with his brother, John.

Hertsgaard and his crew were slogging away until stopped by rain about 4:30 p.m. Nov. 4, trying to get the last 60 acres of beets lifted, but he says progress was too slow to expect to get them done before a forecasted rain Nov. 5 and 6.

"There's a flash-flood watch for here," he says.

Half of the Hertsgaards' beets go to American Crystal Sugar Co. Half go to Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative. While Craig works on his remaining acres, he also is sympathetic to the farmers farther to the south that have a much higher percentage of the beets in the ground.


"They're saying another 1 to 2 inches," he says, shrugging. "What do you do?"

Overall, Minn-Dak was 70 percent completed Nov. 3 and "very wet in the remaining areas," says Tom Knudsen, vice president of agriculture. There were areas of excessive moisture everywhere -- Richland, Wilkin, Cass, Clay -- anywhere.

"It doesn't have to be low ground. It can be in the hills, the high lands," Knudsen says in answer to questions of where it's the wettest in Minn-Dak country. "The sand is wet. It doesn't matter where. Old-timers have never seen it this wet before."

No timetables

Knudsen is not making predictions about a close to the harvest.

"When it happens, it happens," he says. "You can look at 15 different forecasts and find something different. We live by the day. It's been a long, rough grind, and there's no end in sight."

Farther north, Jeff Schweitzer, spokesman for American Crystal, says 98.6 percent of the sugar beets in the company's five Red River Valley factories have been harvested. Some 420,000 acres were expected for harvest.

There is "some harvest activity occurring through the valley," he says, but he emphasizes that the wettest ground still was to come in.


"It's been slow going on this last 10 percent," he says.

About 12,000 acres were left to harvest as of Nov. 3. At a 25-ton yield average, that's the equivalent of about 300,000 tons -- or three of the big piles you see at a beet piling station. In the past two seasons a ton of beets was worth about $47 per ton. If that value held true for the 2008 crop, it would be worth about $14 million in beet costs. Minn-Dak has 30,000 acres in the field.

The Moorhead factory district had the most remaining with 6,800 acres to harvest. Hillsboro still had 4,300 acres. East Grand Forks and Crookston in Minnesota had 200 acres each, but the Drayton, N.D., factory had about 800 acres left.

The company had about 10.2 million tons harvested. They might come in at 10.6 million tons if everything were brought in. Typically, Crystal maximizes its factory capacity when it harvests 10 million to 10.5 million tons.

Schweitzer notes that the crop has surprised the co-op's ag staff with the current 25.5-tons-per-acre yield. The sugar content has been averaging about 17.5 percent, which is less than the 18 percent average for the 2007 crop.

The company will start its factory district meetings Nov. 10, about a week later than usual. The annual meeting is Dec. 4 in Fargo, N.D.

The Hertsgaards cut their sugar beet acres from a normal of 700 acres to only 300 acres in 2008, he says. The Hertsgaards shifted more acres to soybeans this year, he says, and most of those already had been harvested.

Next is the corn, and none of that has been touched on the Hertsgaard farm.


"With the beets, they're below the ground," Hertsgaard says. "With the corn and beans, we can still go if it freezes -- assuming we don't get significant snow. See me after we get a foot."

Crop insurance is an issue.

No officials or farmers cared to be quoted on crop insurance, but one source says that if the proven yield is 20 tons and farmers have insured at 70 percent, that's a 14- to 15-ton guarantee. In a big yield year, that means a lot of valuable crop is left in the field with no coverage.

Looking ahead to corn, Hertsgaard says he understands that the moisture content on standing corn has been coming down slowly, but he hasn't yet checked any of his own. He says a late harvest has implications for residue management in the heavy soils of the Red River Valley.

Is it all an impact of global warming, in a year when the killing frost only came in the last week of October? With 59-degree temperatures on the morning of Nov. 5, Hertsgaard is philosophical.

"Three miles to the west are the 'sand hills' -- the last beach of (ancient) Lake Agassiz. They're at a grade 75 feet above this spot," he says. "So 10,000 years ago, it was 75 feet under water in this field. The climate changes."

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