Sugar Beet Rebound: No Labor Day knockout from quick freeze

Cautious prediction of above average 2020 sugar beet crop

Posted 9/25/20

Thoughts of “Here we go again” had to be on collective minds.

Temperatures plunged 50 degrees in 24 hours on the eve of the early dig of the 2020 sugar beet harvest, giving rise to …

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Sugar Beet Rebound: No Labor Day knockout from quick freeze

Cautious prediction of above average 2020 sugar beet crop


Thoughts of “Here we go again” had to be on collective minds.

Temperatures plunged 50 degrees in 24 hours on the eve of the early dig of the 2020 sugar beet harvest, giving rise to flashbacks from a year ago. That’s when 5,000 acres of area sugar beets were frozen in the ground — a total of 12,000 acres of sugar beets left unharvested in the Western Sugar Cooperative’s four-state region.

But the worst did not materialize this time around.

Snow blanketed the mountains and snarled traffic in Wyoming, and the thermometer dropped below freezing in the Powell area on Labor Day Monday, Sept 7. It was far from a knockout punch.

The early harvest went ahead as scheduled on Sept. 8, and the cautious prediction remains hopeful — even promising — for an above average 2020 sugar beet crop in the Lovell Factory District. The really encouraging news is that weather forecasters are giving the green light to harvest conditions in the weeks ahead.

“We knew it was not going to get to the teens and single digits like it did last October,” said Western Sugar board member Ric Rodriguez, who farms on Heart Mountain west of Powell. “The coldest temperature we had at one of our places was 24 degrees, and that was only for a few hours.”

Rodriguez even found a silver lining to the brief dip of below freezing temperatures: It encourages the beets to start storing sugar, he said.

Rodriguez cited higher selling prices for sugar, improving factory performance and a strong crop in the ground as reasons for sugar beet growers to be optimistic going into the 2020 harvest.


Potential for above average crop

Western Sugar’s crop sampling projects a 2020 yield in the Lovell district of 28.6 tons per acre, with sugar content of 17%. There’s potential for the yield to get even better.

“It all depends on the September you get,” said Rodriguez. “These warm nights and days the beets will still grow. They can put on a ton a week in September.”

Fellow Western Sugar board member Tod Stutzman, a North End beet grower, agreed the 2020 crop has the potential to be above average.

“It’s good for the community,” he observed. The Western Sugar factory at Lovell is credited with putting about $32 million annually into the area economy.

Stutzman said the beets have really come on in late summer. The interim growth between samplings has been almost historical, he said. Samplings are first taken mid-July and then updated every three or four weeks.

“The monthly changes are exceeding averages by quite a bit,” Stutzman reflected. “It’s just a matter of getting the crop harvested.”

Then he injected a note of reality: “The eggs aren’t in the basket yet.”

It’s also a big deal that factories are operating well, Stutzman added. The four factories in the Western Sugar four-state region have as a target the combined slice of 19,000 tons of beets a day. “And we’re getting there,” Stutzman said.

Each state in the Western Sugar Cooperative four-state region has at least two directors on the co-op board; Colorado has three. Western Sugar operates four factories — one in each state — at Lovell in Wyoming; Billings in Montana; Scottsbluff in Nebraska; and Fort Morgan in Colorado.


Sugar selling higher

For the cooperative as a whole, the expectations are high for a crop planted to 111,000 acres.

The selling price of sugar is about $1 per hundredweight higher than a year ago, a factor of supply and demand. When a sizable amount of the 2019 sugar beet crop was frozen the ground, it limited the amount of sugar that got to market.

“They’re looking for a tremendous crop in the Torrington/Scottsbluff area on 45,000 acres,” Rodriguez said. “Their forecast of a yield of 33.75 tons per acre would be a record for that area.”

Montana growers are projecting a yield of 34.9 tons per acre, and the Colorado growers are looking for 32.5 tons per acre through the Fort Morgan factory. Montana, Nebraska and Colorado growers started their early digs on Sept. 1.

“Up here, we were going to start our early harvest on Sept. 1, but decided to hold off until Sept. 8,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of beets were delivered in the first couple of days, and the factory shut down deliveries on Sept. 11 to catch up and work out a few glitches. We only want to keep enough beets on the ground in this warm weather to run the factory a few days and keep beets from spoiling in piles.”

“The factory is running well. We’ve had some processing issues in the past, but we’ve worked on that, and we’ve had some success,” he added. “Our factories have got to perform better.”


WHIP relief saves the day

Federal assistance to growers who suffered severe financial losses in the freeze of 2019 saved the day for area sugar beet farmers, Rodriguez said.

He credited the Wyoming congressional delegation and senators from other states who were likewise severely impacted by the freeze for extending assistance from the United States Department of Agriculture and the federal Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program (WHIP). Basically, the federal payments to growers will recover “pretty close to the cost of production,” Rodriguez said.

Legislation directed the WHIP payments to be made to the sugar companies and then distributed to affected growers as a supplement to crop insurance. So far about 80% of the WHIP money has reached growers, with 20% of distributions to be made by Dec. 31, before federal auditing.

“A lot of people don’t like federal relief,” Rodriguez said. “But this was crucial. Without the WHIP money, a lot of growers wouldn’t have gotten financed [by banks]. We could have lost our beet industry.”

The goal of the early dig in September is to deliver from 10 to 15% of the 2020 crop so the factory campaign can begin. This year, Western Sugar calls for growers to deliver 6 tons per acre of contracted acreage in the early harvest.

The regular harvest, with all-out deliveries to receiving stations in the Lovell Factory District, begins Oct. 6. About 14,500 acres of sugar beets are planted in the Lovell district this year.