This edition of the Sustainability Spotlight features Bob Mari. Mari has been growing crops for 30 years since moving back to the farm and farming with his brother Rod. They grow sugarbeets for the Western Sugar Cooperative. They also grow corn, wheat and alfalfa. Their farm is almost entirely center pivot irrigated, with a small amount of flood irrigation, and a small amount of dryland farming.

Q: What does sustainability mean to you? How have you seen that definition change over time?

A: Sustainability for me has to be first and foremost attained on my balance sheet. That being said, that was the very reason we changed from conventional farming to strip-till farming out here in northeastern Colorado. We were not showing much of a profit in the lean years. We needed to change things up. That decision was based on the balance sheet being sustainable; that was in 2005. Little did we know that those changes that we made would propel us forward so quickly. That's when we started to see so many other positive aspects in our farming operations.

Brothers Rod and Bob Mari grow sugarbeets for Western Sugar Cooperative in Colorado.
Submitted photo.
Brothers Rod and Bob Mari grow sugarbeets for Western Sugar Cooperative in Colorado. Submitted photo.
The residue we now keep on top of the soil was and continues to be huge. It buffers the wind, keeps the soil cooler and reduces erosion (also helps retain water). We don't see much runoff at all when it does rain so it is good for soil health and maintaining topsoil. We had 13 inches of rain this spring during the planting season with minimal runoff. That to me is sustainable modern-day farming, when the land is benefiting as much or more as my balance sheet. That is a win-win for me, and it should be what environmentalists would hope for.

Sustainability has become a buzzword in agriculture in the last few years. I believe many people are tying it to the environment, but as I said we have to be economically sustainable if we want to continue to farm sustainably. It's got to be sustainable to the planet they say and I totally agree. I'm 55 years old and starting to slow down a little, but being able to make changes keeps me passionate and motivated for the next BIG change coming in our sugar beet farming operation.

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Q: In your sugarbeet operation, what measures have you taken to enhance your efficiency and sustainability? Which have been successful and which have not worked out?

A: Our next step that we have taken over the last few years has been the implementation of cover crops. We try to plant a cover crop of wheat or rye after the sugarbeet harvest. But also, we have been trying some cover crops before planting the beets. We feel there are many advantages to this practice; probably the most important to us is early-season weed control. I think that we are just starting to see all of the benefits that cover crops can bring. Nitrogen fixation is another huge attribute to cover crops.

There are many challenges that we face in Colorado growing sugar beets. Water, urban sprawl, resistant kochia, and Palmer amaranth all come to mind. We have tried variable rate fertilizer in the past but are no longer using this tool. It seemed that we were not growing much of anything in the weaker spots especially in our corn fields.

It seems that the first innovators for sustainability get looked over and past practices often go unnoticed. All of these changes wouldn't have been possible without the invention of the GMO sugarbeet. I know better than probably most because we were strip tilling corn several years before the beets. The early spring winds left the corn fields unscathed, but the beets didn't fare as well. So, we had the bright idea to strip till the beets. We didn't have roundup ready beets or RTK GPS but we weren't going to let that hold us back. The crop came up great in all that residue, then it was time to cultivate with the cutaway discs. That was not fun. We had a new disease called cultivator blight! I laugh now but I didn't back then. But we were convinced that strip tilling sugar beets was the way to go.

When we finally got Roundup Ready sugarbeet two years later, our beet acres grew quickly as did the yields. The last few years our sugar per acre has really risen in this area. I believe most of the gain is due to genetics, followed closely by improved farming practices. I believe most growers are taking another harder look at their fertilizer sampling and timing their applications to try to find that elusive ton/sugar/sugar-loss-to-molasses balance. Not easy to achieve but rewarding when it happens.

Q: What future innovations would help you the most?

A: Future innovations for our industry need to come quicker in the areas of weed control. It seems that there is not much incentive for companies to bring new products in because of either being sued or to have it removed and the use banned. That is a huge problem for us in the very near future. Hopefully technology can keep pace with the erosion of choices that we are faced with. We simply need more tools in our toolbox!

Q: How important are pesticides to your sustainability efforts?

A: Pesticides are critically important for continued success and if we can’t have access to them and are not trusted to use them as we were properly trained then we have bigger problems. Having efficient pesticides such as neonicotinoid seed treatments for sugarbeets greatly reduces our use of other pesticides.

Q: What efforts have you taken to educate local and national elected officials about your practices?

A: I believe that becoming active in our sugarbeet local associations and state associations is a great place for our younger growers to build knowledge and confidence and then be able to promote this industry. I can't believe the amount of information that I have gained since joining the American Sugarbeet Growers Association board. I'm always learning and building confidence about the industry.

We recently held the annual Sugar Beet Days in Sterling, Colorado. It's a craft fair for mostly merchandisers in the area. About five or so years ago, our Sterling Local Association decided to have a booth and do free cotton candy and display some sugarbeets and show a video of beet harvest, stuff like that. I use that time to promote sugarbeets. But since I've been on the ASGA board and am blessed with facts and figures, I find myself promoting not only sugarbeet farming but sugarbeet policies at the federal level and touting the fact that sugar policy in the farm bill comes at no cost to the taxpayer. It blew me away rambling on with my facts and figures from our virtual fly-ins we had earlier in the year when we met with many members of Congress and their staff to educate them on the importance of sugar policy.

Q: What can growers do to better communicate or let customers know about the great achievements of our industry?

A: I think it's important to maintain sustainability relationships with our end users. It helps our customers to have a detailed understanding of our sustainability metrics. It is easy for them to buy from us if they have sustainability metrics that they need, and we meet or exceed those metrics.

Scott Herndon serves as the Vice President and General Counsel of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association in Washington, D.C. He represents growers on all issues that impact the sugar industry, including sustainability. On sustainability policy, he works with Farmers for a Sustainable Future, www.sustainablefarming.us, a coalition of 21 farm and ranch groups committed to environmental and economic sustainability. Scott can be reached at sherndon@americansugarbeet.org.