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Sugarbeet growers face turbulent years since disastrous 2019 harvest

Since the disaster of 2019, sugarbeet growers have had far from favorable years.

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The past four years have been trying times for sugarbeet growers. From extreme drought to extreme moisture, the weather has taken a toll on their beet crop. Photo taken September 2021, near Humboldt, Minnesota.
Emily Beal / Agweek
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As Jason Schatzke shakes his leg vigorously while sitting in his office chair and taps his pen against the desk, one thing is clear: he would rather be out in his fields in the midst of planting season. The excessive moisture and cool temperatures so far in what should have been the 2022 planting season have made it impossible for him and his crew to begin planting their sugarbeet acres.

Schatzke farms with his wife and children on their diversified operation in Wheatland, North Dakota. They grow edible beans, sunflowers, corn, wheat, soybeans and of course, sugarbeets.

“Sugarbeets are the main stake, that’s our main crop. They carry the water year in and year out, no pun intended with what’s going on outside right now,” Schatzke said.

Schatzke took over the farm in 1998, the fifth generation to tend the soil in Wheatland. The Schatzke farm has records dating back to the 1880s, proving the operation has not only stood the test of time but also all of the obstacles and roadblocks that have been thrown in its way over the past two centuries.

However, the Schatzke farm’s sugarbeet acres have had to endure a turbulent couple of years, just like those of his fellow sugarbeet growers nestled in the Red River Valley. The disaster of 2019 still has an effect on Schatzke to this day.

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“The hair on my back stood up when you said the fall of 2019,” he said.

That year, excessive rains, followed by freezing temperatures, resulted in growers for American Crystal Sugar leaving about 30% of their acreage — 115,000 acres — unharvested. Growers in the cooperative produced 6.5 million tons of sugarbeets in 2019, a far-below average number, especially when compared to the 10 million tons produced in 2020 and nearly 12 million in 2021.

Schatzke was unable to complete his sugarbeet harvest in the fall of 2019 due to far from favorable weather conditions. Extreme rainfall in the early autumn months had kept him out of the fields, and then when he was finally able to get into the fields, the sugarbeets had become frozen, making them impossible to harvest. Schatzke left 30% of his sugarbeet crop unharvested that year.

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Jason Schatzke runs a diverse operation but focuses heavily on sugarbeets. Photo taken May 10, 2022 in Wheatland, North Dakota.
Emily Beal / Agweek

Leaving the beets unharvested took a toll on growers mentally and financially, and it also impacted the sugarbeet planting season of 2020. Schatzke’s planting season got off to a late start as he had to harvest other crops that did not make it out during normal harvest time. This pushed back planting his sugarbeets. In addition, he also left some sugarbeet fields unplanted, as they were still too wet from the catastrophic events that took place in the fall months of 2019.

Luckily, Schatzke says his 2020 sugarbeet crop turned out to be adequate given the conditions. As for the year of 2021, the region was plagued with a drought.

“The spring of 2021 was very very trying,” Schatzke said. “We couldn’t stop the dirt from blowing and shearing off the sugarbeets. We ended up planting the sugarbeets two times, some fields three times.”

Now this year, sugarbeet growers are met with the other end of the weather spectrum, going from extreme drought to extreme moisture.

“With all of agriculture, we just have to roll with the punches. We gotta deal with what the good Lord gives us, and right now he’s giving us a lot of moisture. Last year he gave us a lot of heat and dryness,” said Harrison Weber, executive director of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association.

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Weber works closely with sugarbeet growers. He and Schatzke are hopeful that the sugarbeet planting season will go smoothly, once the soil dries up.

Both Minnesota and North Dakota are vastly behind the average pace for sugarbeet planting. As of May 8, Minnesota farmers had planted 8% of its expected sugarbeet acres, whereas North Dakota reported only 2% of sugarbeet acres planted. North Dakota and Minnesota are drastically behind than their average pace of 62% and 63%, respectively, at this point in the planting season.

“Our records indicate that we were here in 1881, we’ve been doing this for five generations. Yes, it’s trying, and yes, it is difficult, but we’re going to be OK. The sun is going to come up tomorrow. We’re going to be able to get out of bed and go to work and do what we love to do, and the crop is going to be OK,” Schatzke said.

And while he is anxiously awaiting warmer days to dry his soaked soil, hung upon Schatzke’s office walls within his machinery-filled shop is a quote to remind him that there are brighter days ahead.

“A farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn’t still be a farmer.” - Will Rogers

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A Will Rogers quote hangs on Jason Schatzke's office wall. Photo taken May 10, 2022 in Wheatland, North Dakota.
Emily Beal / Agweek

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