The 2020 sugarbeet harvest for American Crystal Sugar was 97% complete in 10 days from the time stockpile harvest began on Sept. 30. The harvest was one of the quickest on record for the cooperative.
While the job ends for most after the harvest is complete, that marks the beginning for Dan Gowan, director of agriculture for American Crystal Sugar. Most beets will be stored at outdoor piling sites, exposed to the elements for several months before they are taken to the factory to be processed.
Once the beets are in storage, cool weather is needed to drop the temperature of the beets to slow or halt respiration. So far, Gowan says, the beets are storing in good condition.
“The beets are storing fine. We did not like that warm spell. We prefer to have average temperatures or below, but really, in the long term, we are looking good,” he said.
Unlike the previous two years’ harvest, there were no shutdowns for rain or snow this year, just minimal shutdowns for warm temperatures in the afternoons.
“This harvest was one of the best that I’ve ever seen,” Gowan said. “It went from the worst harvest I’ve experienced to the best. The beets went into the pile at the correct temperatures. If they wouldn’t have, we wouldn’t be as happy as we are today.”
The most critical time for the beets in storage is the first few weeks. That is the determining factor as to whether or not they will store well over the winter months.
“Generally if they store through Thanksgiving, they are going to make it,” Gowan said. “It’s really the first few weeks after harvest, including November, that are the most important. It was a really nice, cool November for us this year.”
Right after Christmas, forced air was applied to the piles through the ventilation system underneath the piles. In just a few days, Gowan explains, the piles were frozen two-thirds of the way up. American Crystal turns on its ventilation system whenever temperatures are below 20 degrees.
The outer layer of beets in a pile are referred to as rim beets. Those beets often freeze and thaw, causing high respiration in the beet, leading to it burning its sugar. Rain showers, like what the Red River Valley received in mid-January, are not a welcomed sight to a frozen beet pile.
“We don’t like rain,” Gowan said. “It softens the rim beets. Luckily, we didn’t get enough rain to really get into the beet pile so it wasn’t a big thing. In general, long term temperatures above average are our biggest concern. That has given the rim beets the biggest beating.”
Despite the unusually warm winter the area has experienced thus far, the beet piles are still faring well because of the ideal November temperatures.
“This isn’t normal. We aren’t supposed to be 30 degrees above average. Because we were able to freeze the piles in about 250 to 300 hours of run time (on the ventilation system), we’ve survived this just fine,” Gowan said. “I doubt if we’ll ever get them as cold as we normally do. We typically like to get it so that it’s below zero degrees through the top of the pile. That means the bottom beets are really cold. That is only for the piles that will be processed at the end of the season. That would usually get us through the end of May.”
Gowan explains that with the smaller crop in 2020, the processing campaign will be shorter. He estimates that the last American Crystal processing plant will likely finish around the middle of April.
“That means we don’t have to get the piles as cold as normal,” he said.
Another attribute to the dry harvest is the “really low” dirt tare. Gowan says that has helped the factory reach an above-average slice rate, which in turn helps get the beets out of the warm weather faster.
Successful COVID-19 protocols
The protocols set forth by American Crystal to keep its employees safe during the COVID-19 pandemic this year have been successful.
“We have survived COVID very well throughout the company,” Gowan said. “We had quite a checklist for everybody that works for the company, including harvest personnel. Even bringing in 1,800 people to help with our harvest at the piler sites, I think we had just two known cases that were positive. We were very fortunate to have a quick and clean harvest.”
With processing at the factories in full swing, the strict company-wide protocols remain the same.
“Everybody has their temperature taken. If someone is not feeling well, they are expected to stay home,” Gowan said. “That’s been working really well. We haven’t lost any time in the factories because of COVID and that’s a great tribute to our employees.”