“We're going to keep digging on quota,” said Glen Reed, a Cody-area beet grower and president of the Big Horn Basin Beet Growers Association. “Every truck that we can put across the scales that gets processed” is a …
Weather big unknown in digThe future of the 2009 sugar beet harvest is as murky as the weather forecast.Sugar beet growers in the Lovell district this week began the second phase of digging under allotment. Each grower is allowed to dig 1.2 tons per acre under contract with Western Sugar Cooperative in each seven-day period.
“We're going to keep digging on quota,” said Glen Reed, a Cody-area beet grower and president of the Big Horn Basin Beet Growers Association. “Every truck that we can put across the scales that gets processed” is a bonus.
Reed said the beets, which froze the weekend of Oct. 9-12, are not doing well.
“They haven't healed a whole lot, even though we've had favorable weather,” he said. “They're still not storable.”
Reed said it's hard to come to terms with losing the beet crop, which had been on track to produce potential record yields.
“I'm still trying to come to grasps with it myself,” he said. “Mother Nature controls so much. We had a cold spring, a cold growing year all year long, until the last two months. You plant the seeds and hope for the best, play the hand that you're dealt and that's just the way it's going to be.”
Frozen beets are being hauled to the factory in Lovell, which can process 3,000 tons per day, Reed said. Beets harvested before the cold snap are storing well in piles at receiving stations. The piled beets have been covered with lime to preserve them and are scheduled to be processed after the frozen beets, Reed said.
Reed said the quota system will stay the same, barring bad weather.
“It's not looking good,” he said, and one long-term forecast indicates a cold front could move through about Oct. 31.
“If the co-op sees a major storm event coming they probably will let people go into a different round” of the quota, effectively speeding up the amount of beets harvested, he said. “Other than that, it's going to be the same. We're slowed down to what the factory capacity is.”
Billings area growers are facing a similar quota system. Those beets also are frozen and can't be piled, Reed said. The factory there can't take on any extra from the Lovell district.
Reed said co-op officials believe 40 percent of the crop has been harvested based on Western Sugar projected yield of 24.5 tons per acre.
But the remaining beets have to come out of the ground, he pointed out.
“It's gone, anything that you don't get over the scales,” he said. “That's the way it goes.”
The quota, or allotment, is the best way Western Sugar officials have to “make it as fair as possible and also make the logistics work out,” Reed said.
Everyone at the co-op is trying to accommodate as much as they can, he said, growers as well as employees at the factories and receiving stations.
“They're doing the best they can. I can't compliment them enough.”
The factory is running well so far with the frozen beets, Reed said. Some growers are making three passes to remove the frozen tops, which could gum up factory equipment.
“If there's downtime at the factory our quota goes down proportionally,” Reed said.
He understands some growers probably want to dig more beets than allowed under the quota, hoping they can be processed in time.
“When you have that much invested you want to grasp as many straws as you can find,” Reed said. “I don't think there's that many straws left to grab.”
But digging them beyond factory capacity, set by the seven-day quota, won't help, he said.
“I want to stress that it won't do any good to pile beyond that,” he said. It just piles on expenses — for the grower to dig the beets, co-op expenses to run the receiving stations — and if a pile of beets goes bad, disposal costs to haul them away.
“They will keep way better in the ground than they ever will in a pile,” Reed said. “It's just a bad situation that we're in. There's no magic wand or magic bullet or anything.”
Beets are starting to grow new tops to replace the frozen ones, Reed said, which will decrease sugar content. At some point, the economic return from processing beets will dwindle to the point where it's no longer profitable to take them to the factory.
“We don't know where that line is, and no one wants to be on the other side of the line,” Reed said. “All that money in with absolutely no return.”
It's a gamble every farmer takes at some point, Reed said.
“That happens at times,” he said. “All you can do is make the best decision you can with the information you have.”
“It is what it is. We're not the first to lose a crop.”
Crop losses expected to top $12 million
With massive sugar beet losses looming, Park County commissioners have asked Gov. Dave Freudenthal to request that Park County be designated an agricultural disaster area.
In a letter sent Wednesday, the commission requested that the county receive a Secretarial Disaster Declaration “due to unseasonable cold and freezing conditions October 6 through October 13 in Park County.”
If the governor concurs with the request, he will pass it on to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who will approve or deny the designation.
A Secretarial Disaster Declaration would allow area farmers to qualify for low-interest loans, and potentially, federal repayment for some of their losses.
Last week, Lee Craig, county executive director of the USDA's Farm Service Agency in Powell, Klodette Stroh, president of the Park County Women Involved in Farm Economics, and state Rep. Dave Bonner, R-Powell, all wrote letters to the commission, urging them to request a disaster declaration.
On Tuesday, commissioners voted unanimously to do so.
This month's cold snap wreaked havoc on what was expected to be a record sugar beet harvest. Other crops, such as dry beans, alfalfa seed, wheat and corn have also been negatively impacted.
“The loss to Park County growers and the Park County economy may be staggering,” Bonner wrote.
Craig's letter said losses are expected to surpass $12 million. He said some 6,500 acres of beets are still in the ground.
“It isn't possible to project exactly how many acres of beets will ultimately be harvested, but at some point in the very near future, the ground will be frozen too hard for harvest to continue,” wrote Craig.
“It is very sad,” Stroh told commissioners on Tuesday.
“I've had several producers in the office already saying they don't know if they're going to be able to continue farming,” added Kathy Palazzolo, a farm loan officer with the Farm Service Agency.
The hope is that a natural disaster declaration will help ease the financial burden.
In order to qualify for a declaration, the loss of one county's crop must be 30 percent or greater; in Park County, sugar beet loss could be up to 75 percent, said Palazzolo.
She said a declaration would make producers immediately eligible for low interest (3.75 percent) loans to cover their losses, and eventually allow farmers to receive Supplement Revenue Assistance Payments (SURE).
However, only those growers who purchased federal crop insurance will qualify for SURE relief. The higher a grower's coverage, the more money they're eligible to receive.
Palazzolo said the process should be expedited if possible, given that payments are typically not available until the next year's harvest.
“Right now, we're only working on the 2008 losses,” she said.
Stroh and Palazzolo both told commissioners that the effects of this year's troubled harvest will be felt throughout the community, noting particularly the impact on agricultural support businesses.
“It's going to affect us tremendously,” said Stroh.
Added Palazzolo, “It's all going to trickle down.”