Sep 9, 2015

Local sugar beet farmers expecting a strong harvest

This fall’s harvest of sugar beets is coming in sweeter and earlier than usual, thanks to good weather conditions for the spring and summer in the Big Horn Basin.

Digging started Sept. 2 (about five days earlier than last year), and sampling so far indicates that local fields are yielding about 30 tons per acre, said Ric Rodriguez, Western Sugar Cooperative board of directors vice-chairman and Powell farmer.

Ten years ago, an average harvest brought in 22 tons per acre, but advances in bio technology and seed varieties have brought that up to about 28 tons per acre, said Powell farmer Fred Hopkin.

“It is the earliest harvest they have ever had in the Lovell factory,” Hopkin said. “They are predicting the biggest crop that the Lovell factory has ever had.”

Rodriquez wasn’t sure why this year’s sugar beets did so well. There were concerns in the spring when it was cooler than usual, he said.

Shane Smith operates a beet digger on Wyo. highway 295 north of Powell on Thursday. Cody News Co. photo by Carla Wensky

“It is hard to predict,” Rodriguez said. “We had the ideal growth with a wet spring — summer had the right sunshine and moisture.”

The crop was in earlier than normal and got off to an above-average start, Hopkin said. There were few replants due to wind or freezing, and now the stands are good with overall good crop conditions.

Farmers like to see at least 150 beets per 100 feet in a row, and this year’s counts are higher than average, Rodriguez said.

Farmers get paid based on the sugar content of their harvest and this year’s crop is sweeter than normal by about a half to three-quarters of a percent, Rodriguez said.

“It is nice to dig early and have this high of a sugar content,” Rodriguez said.

Not all of the fields are being harvested at once, but many are underway.

“I think the farmers are optimistic about a good crop, and I don’t think people are thrilled to start this early, but that is the down side to a good crop — the harvest will go longer than normal,” Hopkin said.

Beet harvests work differently than most crops. There are actually two harvests and each is treated differently.

Local farmers are currently going through the early harvest: when beets go from the ground and straight to processing with little downtime between since storage can’t be done for more than a few days when it’s too warm outside.

“I think the farmers are optimistic about a good crop, and I don’t think people are thrilled to start this early, but that is the down side to a good crop — the harvest will go longer than normal,” said farmer Fred Hopkin. 

Harvest also starts based on how much processing the local facilities can handle. Because yields are so high, and processing needs to be done by February or March, the harvests are calculated backwards so that every farmer gets their turn for unloading their crops.

“If they have this big of a crop, they want to start the beets earlier,” Rodriguez said. “This year, the samples were heavier than they ever had.”

Long-term piling of sugar beets will start on Oct. 2 for the later harvest. That round of harvesting will go until about the end of October, but most will be done by the middle of October, Rodriguez said.

“It is all scheduled out through October, then it is wide open,” Rodriguez said. “If we waited until October, we couldn’t get them all processed.”

That date is how harvesting has worked at the Lovell plant for more than 50 years, Hopkin said.
Other regions are harvesting earlier than normal too, Rodriguez said. Harvesting sugar beets in Michigan started around the third week of August.

“Just about everyone is starting early, so it is a good crop for everyone this year,” Rodriguez said. “The price is a little weak, but we hope it will pick up.”

Another way that sugar beets differ from other crops is the final price is not known until Sept. 31, he said.

“Let’s just hope for good weather,” Rodriguez said. “Hot is bad and cold is worse.”

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