Growing up, I spent countless hours with my father and grandfather in the cab of a tractor or in the buddy seat of the combine. Being born into a family that had deep roots in the agriculture industry, I became used to the talk about market prices and well versed in the area of corn, soybeans and wheat.
As a rural Ohio native, I swiftly learned those three crops dominated the region. While I knew the U.S. was a large contributor of other agricultural crops and products, it truly never crossed my mind the depth of resources our nation produces. That is, until I moved 1,000 miles from my family’s farm to Fargo, N.D.
Since the move, I had been hearing about a high risk, yet high reward crop: sugar beets. Coming from the easternmost part of the Corn Belt, I had no prior knowledge of the commodity and the importance it has on the region and the nation’s sugar industry.
In an effort to learn more about agriculture in the area I now call home, I set on a mission to cover some stories about this mysterious, to me, crop. As I journeyed to Ada, Minn., to see my first sugar beet harvest, I was taken aback by the color of the dirt. The land’s dark intensity that screamed of richness was a sight I was not used to seeing, as the soil I grew up to know was a mixture of bronze and chestnut.
My source of knowledge for this assignment was a vetted pro, Neil Rockstad. Neil has been a sugar beet producer for over 20 years, and is the newly minted president of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association.
As we conversed in the harvester, Neil talked of the struggles sugar beet producers had in the harvest of 2019. It was clear, by the look in his eyes and the tone of his voice, that it was a devastating, disaster of a year. Due to the excessive cold and moisture, farmers were not able to get into their fields and harvest their crop. Some producers only harvested 30% of their sugar beet acres.
Yet as we rode along, bouncing in our seats due to the uneven ground, I was reminded of the resilience that is the American farmer. After seeing a devastating planting season in Ohio myself in 2019, I had a first-class seat in witnessing the all-too-common struggles producers face due to Mother Nature.
But, as I watched Neil talk about the success of this year’s harvest and how producers pushed forward, I realized that the perseverance of the American farmer is the backbone of this industry. No matter where you may be on the map.
As for the harvest itself, I was surprised by the facets of it all. The beets being planted into the ground grow lush green leaves. Before they're harvested, a defoliator makes its way down the rows and slices off the foliage. After this, the harvester can go over the sugar beets and remove them from the ground.
When examining the sugar beet, it was not how I pictured. Before my visit with Neil, whenever someone mentioned sugar beets, I had a distinct picture in my head. A summer-time staple at my house growing up was pickled beets. My mother would spend days canning them, her hands being tattooed a reddish pink for the following days after her canning session. As I held that sugar beet in my hand, I quickly saw the crop did not look like the contents inside the jar that resided in our fridge. The crop in my palm was not a screaming red, but a soft brown color.
Neil shared his knowledge with me throughout the whole ride in the harvester, and said something that I believe rings true.
“That’s the great thing about this industry, there is always something to learn,” Neil said.
And while this was the first time I ever climbed into a piece of farm machinery with someone other than my grandfather, father or brother, I can’t help but be excited about how my knowledge will continue to grow.
Emily Beal is an Agweek staff writer. You can reach her at email@example.com.