Record Sugar Beet Harvests to Keep Montana Making Sugar Into March11/29/2016
And the beets go on. And on and on and on, if you’re a Montana farmer in the sugar business.
Officials at Western Sugar Cooperative in Billings and Sidney Sugars in Sidney said farmers broke records for sugar beet production across the state this year. Refineries, which fired up in early fall, will be busy making sugar long after heart-shaped boxes of chocolates are picked over on Valentine’s Day.
“We’re going until the first week of March. We usually wrap up around the 20th or 25th of February,” said Duane Peters, Sidney Sugars agriculture manager.
Eastern Montana farmers pilling beets for Sidney Sugars delivered 1.124 million tons, surpassing a record set in 1998. Despite a lot of adversity, the farmers managed to get a little better than 31 tons an acre, also a record.
The key, said Peters, was fall moisture. Sidney farmers saw about two inches of rain in September, followed by the wettest October on record. The mud that followed made the harvest extremely difficult, but undid a summer of unpredictable damage.
Eastern Montana farmers went into spring dry and worried about rain, but then got a two-inch soaker in May that had everyone hopeful. Then things dried up, and the mud from the May downpour turned into a thick crust the beets couldn’t break through. Farmers had to replant.
On Aug. 21, a severe canal break left 13,000 acres of Sidney Sugars’ beets withering in the heat. The breach at the end of an extremely dry Montana summer was moving water at 700 cubic feet per second, faster than all but a handful of Montana rivers. Rotten tree roots were to blame for the weak canal bank. Construction crews had to cut a new path for the canal as temperatures soared into the 90s.
The September and October rain made up for the summer losses, Peters said. And because there wasn’t a hard freeze, the beets kept putting on tons. On average the sugar content was in the 17 percent range, a little lower than normal, but that was because the beets watered up late.
“What saved us was that last week in September when we got 2 inches of rain,” Peters said. “We couldn’t dig. It was too muddy, and those beets just kept growing.”
Farmers raising beets for Western Sugar Cooperative in Billings and Lovell, Wyo., had similar luck. September and October pushed the yields up to record levels in Montana and Wyoming, said Randall Jobman, Western’s vice president of agriculture in the northern region.
“In Montana, we’re going to end up with 36.5 tons per acre, which is a record. And we’re going to see in Wyoming a 30.1-ton crop, which is a record,” Jobman said. “I think we had favorable crop weather. We had a lot of rain and some heat units in September and October.”
Heat units are hours in which temperatures are right for plant growth. An October without a hard freeze kept beets growing and kept the harvest going into Nov. 11.
Jobman said Western will make sugar until the end of February, about 10 days longer than normal.
The sugar industry pumps about $100 million into the Montana economy annually.
The sugar economy is looking pretty sweet right now, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Worldwide, farmers are expected to produce 169 million metric tons of sugar from the current crop year. Global demand for sugar is forecast at 174 million metric tons. The demand should have farmers feeding sugar beets into a market short on sweets.
That short supply is a reversal from the last several years of a sugar glut, when supply was high and farm profits soured.
Source: The Billings Gazette