Growers fear looming disaster

Posted 10/20/09

“Everybody gets their share,” he said, a proportional amount based on the amount of acres they have under contract with the cooperative.

“I'm going to get about 60 acres a week,” Rodriguez said. He has about 800 acres left …

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Growers fear looming disaster


{gallery}10_15_09/beets101509{/gallery} Temperatures hovered around 22 degrees while Regan Smith harvested snow-covered crops Friday afternoon. Last weekend's bitter weather afflicted local sugar beets, causing severe damage to what was expected to be one of the best crops on record. Tribune photo by Carla Wensky Beet losses could mount as farmers endure harsh harvestSugar beet growers for Western Sugar Cooperative will begin delivering beets under an allotment schedule today (Thursday) that limits how many beets they can deliver in a seven-day period.Ric Rodriguez, a Heart Mountain beet grower and vice chairman of the Western Sugar board of directors, said Wednesday that the initial 10-day allotment schedule had been revised to seven days in part as an attempt to allow growers to dig and deliver beets more often.

“Everybody gets their share,” he said, a proportional amount based on the amount of acres they have under contract with the cooperative.

“I'm going to get about 60 acres a week,” Rodriguez said. He has about 800 acres left to harvest, so it could take him more than 10 weeks to get those beets out of the ground.

“I don't think we have 10 weeks,” he said. “Isn't 10 weeks Christmas?”

In a similar scenario, a 2006 freeze in the Billings area put those growers on an allotment. Sugar company officials halted that dig in late November, Rodriguez said.

“We're going to get some out,” Rodriguez said, but nobody knows how many. It all depends on the weather – and the factory running smoothly.

“If we get any more moisture up here, we're going to be sunk,” Rodriguez said of the Heart Mountain area. On the other hand, some Heart Mountain fields still look a little green, possibly because deeper snow may have insulated the plants. He said fields around town look a lot blacker.

“If we lose all the beets, it's huge,” Rodriguez said. “There's a percentage of them that we're going to get dug.”

Growers in south-central Montana are facing a similar allotment scenario, Rodriguez said.

Fred Hopkin, who grows beets on the Penrose east of Powell, said he had about 40 percent of his beets harvested. He understood that he could harvest 1.2 tons per acre in a seven-day period under his allotment. At that rate, he believed it would take 13 to 14 weeks to dig and deliver the rest of his beets.

As time goes by, sugar company officials may change the allotment or allow some beets to be stockpiled, he said.

If the allotment does not change, “some beets will be left in the ground.”

Hopkin toured local fields on Tuesday with Western Sugar officials, as did Rodriguez, and watched as beet after beet dug from different fields all showed frost damage.

At home, he sampled beets from four different fields.

“The frost was much less here,” he said, but he doesn't know whether the Penrose didn't get as cold, if more soil moisture shielded the plants or if there was less wind. Frost on his place went from about a half-inch to 2 inches into the top of the beet, although beets in areas closer to town were frozen up to 6 inches, he said.

It's difficult to watch growers struggle to harvest beets this year when it could have been “by far the biggest crop that the Big Horn Basin ever produced,” Hopkin said, especially with prices higher than in recent years.

Hopkin recalled the 1969 harvest when growers were placed under allotment.

“I remember 1969,” he said. “I was 12 years old, but it still sticks in my mind.”

His father stockpiled beets on the farm. “We spent a good part of December loading those beets and hauling them into the factory,” he said.

Unlike in 1969, however, growers are now able to purchase crop insurance which could cover some of their losses, Hopkin said.

“In my case, it might cover 40 percent of the value of the crop,” he said, “certainly not the value of the crop.”

But farmers have to be prepared to endure some crop loss in any given year, Hopkin said.

“If you can't withstand a little bit of misfortune, then you'd better not be in this business,” he said. “This one is larger and more significant than your typical crop loss.”

Disaster “is probably not an overstatement,” he said.

Willwood beet grower David Northrup also termed the weekend freeze a disaster.

“It's a terrible loss,” he said. “It's just going to be devastating. It's a disaster.”

Northrup has harvested about one-third of his beets.

“We're not going to get all the beets out of the ground. We won't get done. We won't be able to finish in time,” he said. “There are a lot of unknowns right now,” he said, including what condition the soil will be in by next spring if beets stay in the ground all winter.

The local economy will feel the blow, Rodriguez predicted.

“We were looking at a bumper crop,” Rodriguez said. “This is about a $20 to $25 million crop we're going to leave in the ground.”

Growers were on track to harvest a projected 450,000 tons at an estimated average 26 tons per acre on 17,600 acres, Rodriguez said. At $50 to $55 per ton, “That's a lot of money,” he said.

“It was the best beet crop ever,” Northrup said. “Everyone said so. It was a beautiful crop.” Northrup was averaging 26 to 27 tons per acre before the freeze, he said.

“They were going to be a terrific crop,” he said.

Rodriguez said switching to Roundup Ready beets pushed his beet production from 22 tons to 26 tons per acre this year.

Randall Jobman in Western Sugar's agricultural operations division at the Billings factory said Wednesday that year-to-date sugar content in the Lovell factory district was averaging 16.54 percent. He said it was too early in the harvest to estimate yield. He said tare – dirt, tops, weeds and any other non-beet material – was averaging 3.89 percent.

Rodriguez said keeping mud and beet tops out of beets delivered to the factory is critical to keep the factory running smoothly. On Wednesday, he was struggling in muddy fields as weekend snow melted and he had to defoliate his beets twice because the soggy, frozen beet tops were so sticky.

Hopkin had his own difficulties on Wednesday.

“We're digging now, but it's really hard digging,” he said. He was also running two toppers ahead of the digger, “the only way we can get them through the digger.”

Although it looks bleak now, Hopkin said, it could get better if warmer, dry fall weather can hang on long enough.

“I don't think it's hopeless,” he said. “I'm not ready to think that it is. We're digging right now, and that makes it all brighter.”