Fred Hopkin said he could be seeing the biggest sugar beet crop he’s ever had in his life.
And he just might lose money on it.
Hopkin farms in the Penrose area east of Powell. As the harvest heats up, he said he may produce 30 tons of sugar beets per acre — “the best we’ve ever seen.”
But a sharp decline in sugar prices has put a damper on the strong harvest in the region.
Ric Rodriguez, who grows 1,400 acres of sugar beets and serves as vice chairman of the Western Sugar Cooperative Board of Directors, said prices are at a 30-year low.
“We’re looking at the prices down where they were in the ’80s,” Rodriguez said. “And this is after record prices the past few years.”
He said prices topped $70 per ton in the recent past, depending on sugar content, but they started to slide this year. Right now, they are half that or worse.
“The prices have basically started dropping last spring,” Rodriguez said. “They’ve been dropping ever since.”
As a result, cooperatives are not selling their sugar, he said.
“The crop that we’re going to harvest right now hasn’t been sold right now,” Rodriguez said. “It takes a year to get the final price. The prices are pretty low, so we’re not selling much.”
Hopkin is growing sugar beets on 600 acres, down from his normal 680 acres. He said if he gets $40 per ton, that will cover the cost of production and maybe allow for a small profit. If the price hits $30 per ton, he will have lost money. That will be hard on a lot of growers.
“I’m sure it will,” Hopkin said. “The crop we’re growing now is since the drastic sugar price. With the drop in sugar price, it’s going to have an effect on the farm economy and sugar farmers in particular.”
Rodriguez agreed with that assertion.
“Absolutely it’s going to hurt,” he said. “Absolutely.”
He said while there are a lot of factors, world demand and production are two major considerations. The Brazilian and Mexican markets will impact prices for sugar grown in Wyoming, Rodriguez said.
Mexican sugar growers, aided by government subsidies and free to compete in the United States market since the NAFTA agreement in the mid-1990s, have doubled the amount of sugar they are sending to the USA.
In Wyoming, production totals look promising this year after a “couple of really rotten springs” in recent years, he said. So while farmers are pleased to see increased tonnage, they are hoping for an uptick in prices.
“You don’t really know until the crop comes in,” Rodriguez said. “They’ll sell it if they can get a good price for it.”
The sugar factories will store as much of the sugar as they can. Some will have to be sold, no matter the price, because of a lack of space to keep it.
Rodriguez said if farmers have been smart in the past, they should be OK.
“It just depends on if you took advantage of the good years we had,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a fluctuating market.”