Even for a bunch of sugar beet farmers, the challenges of this year’s harvest are little bit sticky.
For the first time in recent memory, the Western Sugar Cooperative will fire up its Billings factory and begin harvesting beets Sept. 2. Farmers say they could be pulling 37 tons an acre from their fields on average, possibly a record average and roughly 10 tons an acre more than last year.
“It’s just the overall conditions of the climate,” said Nick Sian, who farms beets between Custer and Pompeys Pillar. “We had timely rains to get it started.”
Not just timely rains, but ample moisture. One of the snowiest winters on record meant the soil was wet deep down, even before spring rains began. Moisture levels remained near or above average in some cases through July, according to the National Weather Service.
Nighttime temperatures were also fairly warm, meaning that crops of all kinds spent fewer mornings shivering in the cold earth and more time growing in favorable temperatures. At Sian’s family farm, every crop seemed to be beating historic averages.
There’s also the science behind genetically engineered beets. Sugar beet crops have been near record average for roughly the past five years since farmers switched to beets designed to resist the effects of glyphosate, an herbicide.
But the huge sugar beet crop means there’s little margin for error in getting the beets to the Billings factory and converted to sugar, said Randall Jobman, Western Sugar’s senior agriculturalist based in Billings.
To get as many of the sugar beets processed as possible, the harvest has to begin now, Jobman said. There’s winter on the other end of October and there’s no guarantee the harvest can continue once the snow flies, or, worse yet, the ground freezes. Just a couple years ago, an early October freeze derailed the Western harvest.
But there’s also the challenge of early fall heat. Harvested beets are piled high in beet dumps and trucked into town as the factory needs them. In hot weather, the piles heat up and some of the beets can start to spoil. A bad beet in the pile is like a rotten apple in a barrel spoiling the crop around it.
Jobman said Western will have to be very careful to harvest only enough beets to feed the factory and not pile the harvest so long that it begins to spoil.
Other sugar beet communities are also expecting potentially record crops. In Sidney, farmer Donald Steinbeisser Jr. said farmers feeding the Sidney Sugars factory could harvest 29.7 tons of beets per acre on average. In far Eastern Montana, the tonnage is typically less than what farmers in the Billings area harvest, but the actual sugar content in the beets tends to be higher.
Steinbeisser said farmers in his area had an exceptional crop because they were able to plant earlier than usual. Some farmers were drilling beet seed by the first week of April he said, a few weeks ahead of schedule. Sidney will begin its harvest Oct. 1.