Sugar campaign reaches half-way point

Andrew D. Brosig/The Business Farmer Sugar beet tops in a field along Van Tassel Road north of Torrington, Wyo., give testimony Tuesday, Oct. 21, to the damage done by wintry weather earlier this month as a harvester and truck move through the field in the background. With harvest wrapped for the year, all but about 3 percent of the Wyoming and Nebraska sugar beet crop is out of the ground and in piles waiting for processing into sugar.

WYO-BRASKA – By any metric you’d care to use, the 2019 growing season has been a challenge for ag producers across the region.

From the cool, wet spring that delayed planting at the start to winter storms which brought damage and harvest problems as the season wrapped, this has not been the best year for growers, particularly with sugar beets. But the Western Sugar Cooperative is half-way through this season’s campaign, with sugar production ramped up and running at its processing facility in Scottsbluff, Neb.

“We’ve got beets in the piles and we’re processing them right now,” said Jerry Darnell, vice-president of agriculture for the local cooperative.

Growers in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming were able to harvest 97 percent of beet acres this year. The 2019 crop is averaging 25 tons to the acre with just more than 16 percent sugar across the Wyo-Braska region, Darnell said.

That’s better than growers in other parts of the state and region. In some portions of northern Wyoming and southern Montana, harvest ended with fully one-third of the beets left to rot in the ground.

“When you get a hard freeze, it kills the top and stops production of additional tons and sugar,” Darnell said. “We definitely had some freeze-damage beets we had to harvest.”

Those were the first beets through the Scottsbluff plant, he said. As of Tuesday, all the freeze-damage beets from Wyo-Braska producers had been processed.

Local producers actually fared somewhat better than their counterparts in other sugar beet growing areas, said Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugar Beet Growers Association in Washington, D.C. Weather across the northern tier of beet-producing states – from Montana, through northern Wyoming and east into North Dakota and Minnesota – definitely took a toll on the 2019 crop.

In total, sugar beets are grown on more than 1.1 million acres in 11 states, from Michigan to California, Markwart said. This year, almost 148,500 acres of beets were left, frozen in the ground.

“That’s a field a mile wide, stretching from Denver to about 30 miles north of Scottsbluff,” Markwart said. “That’s 232 miles long. That’s a lot of crop being left in the field.”

There is a bit of good news on the horizon, however, he said. Late Monday, news came down sugar beets damaged by winter storms would be eligible for coverage under the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus, Markwart said.

One of the big questions is how to take care of growers impacted by the weather, he said. Crop insurance will cover some of the damaged acres.

“Particularly in the Montana and Wyoming area, growers are really taking it on the chin,” Markwart said. The WHIP-Plus program “was just expanded to include excess moisture and flooding – the freeze will be treated as a snow event.

“The good news is to all of the growers – there’s going to be some additional help there,” he said. “Help can come from this program.”

It’s still very early in the process of figuring out how WHIP-Plus will be applied to sugar beet producers, Markwart said. USDA is currently gathering data and assessing precisely what the losses across the beet-producing states are.

It’s most likely any payments to come will be made through the cooperatives and sugar companies, he said. They have most of the producer data USDA will need to calculate payments close at hand.

“If they try to do this through the county offices, it would take for ever and be a big burden,” Markwart said. “The bottom line is there’s a lot of questions about money, how it’s going to be figured, how it’s going to be delivered – nobody knows the answers to those things right now.

“Because it’s a cooperative, that short crop is damaging everybody,” he said. “Somebody has to step in and say, ‘If the growers are going to get financed for next year and maintain this entity, we’ve got to have a little help here. These are extraordinary losses.’”

The crop shortages shouldn’t affect consumers, however. USDA announced earlier this month plans to import an almost 709,000 additional short tons of sugar from Mexico to make up for production losses this year, Markwart said. 

Consumers, at least, won’t suffer with higher sugar prices in the store, he said. But that doesn’t ameliorate the impact on producers.

“We’ve had a lot of issues,” Western Sugar’s Darnell said. “It’s definitely been a tough year.”

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