Midwest sugar beet farmers endure difficult harvest

Published 7:29 pm Friday, November 15, 2019

MOORHEAD — It’s been a bitter harvest for many Minnesota and North Dakota sugar beet farmers.

Nearly a third of the crop in some parts of the two states is frozen into the fields — where it’ll be left to rot — after a wet October delayed the harvest until the weather turned too cold.

“This is far and away the worst (year), as far as beets left in the field,” said Dan Younggren, who has raised sugar beets near Hallock in far northwestern Minnesota for about 40 years.

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“This is hands-down the worst harvest we’ve had in 48 years,” said Mike Metzger, a vice president of the Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative, which operates a sugar beet processing plant in Wahpeton, North Dakota, for about 500 farmers.

Minnesota is the largest sugar beet-growing state in the nation, while North Dakota is No. 3, close behind Idaho. Minnesota and North Dakota account for around 60% of U.S. sugar beet production. Beets account for more than half of the sugar produced in the U.S. every year.

While sugar prices have risen on the commodity markets, experts said they don’t expect any impacts on retail consumer prices for sugar for holiday baking, or on other foods and beverages containing sugar, because supplies remain adequate overall.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it would take steps in the coming weeks to ensure an adequate sugar supply to the U.S. market. The agency said it would announce details by Dec. 10.

The USDA also lowered its projections for total U.S. sugar supplies for the 2019-20 crop year by 524,000 tons (475 metric tons), mostly due to the high levels of unharvested beets. Its monthly sugar outlook noted that the national sugar beet harvest was only 70% complete as of Nov. 3.

Insurance will cover only part of farmers’ losses. The governors of Minnesota and North Dakota recently asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to issue disaster declarations for parts of their states affected by persistent bad weather this year.

Younggren was one of many of the 2,800 members of the Moorhead-based American Crystal Sugar cooperative who were forced to leave beets in the ground. In his case it was 40%.

Growers said they took another blow in recent days when the co-op told them they must now pay $343 for every acre they couldn’t harvest. The money will help cover operating costs for the co-op’s five processing plants, replacing money that would have come from sugar sales. That extra hit will cost Younggren about $170,000 on top of his other losses.

“We’re a co-op. Sometimes you thrive together, sometimes you suffer together,” said Younggren, who is also president of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association. “You have to share in the cost of keeping the company alive, so that’s the number they came up with, (and) that’s the number we’ll live with.”

Growers in southwestern Minnesota, where the weather is warmer, were more fortunate.

“We actually harvested 99% of our crop,” said Todd Geselius, a vice president of the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative near Renville.

Farmers there are still looking at their second straight year of below-average payments. A wet spring delayed planting, so the crop fell short of average in both yield and sugar content, key factors in how much farmers earn, Geselius said.

“Chances are it’s not going to be a great year — certainly not good enough to make the kind of payment we would like to make to the growers,” he said.