Ask beet farmers to identify the late-fall odor hanging over Billings and they'll say it's the smell of money emanating from the stacks of the South Side sugar refinery.
This year, it smells like Fort Knox.
In small farming towns across southeast Montana, outside storage piles of sugar beets are deep and wide. The rising mound outside the Western Sugar Cooperative refinery casts a formidable shadow northward almost to Sugar Avenue.
It was a good year for sugar beets.
Cooperative members, on average, pulled 27.4 tons of beets out of every acre planted. Locally, the co-op plants about 27,000 acres of beets a year. The estimated sugar content of the beets is 17 percent.
In Lovell, Wyo., farmers were pulling 24.4 tons of beets out of every acre. The sugar content of the beets was 17.16 percent.
"Both areas are above average in tonnage and sugar," said Randall Jobman, the co-op's North Country agricultural manager. "It's a good time to be in the sugar beet business, and we got the beets out of the ground."
Western had a little harvesting to be done in Emblem, Wyo., where a few weather hiccups kept farmers out of the field. Beet harvests in broad swaths of Wyoming and Montana were halted in mid-October when wet, early snow - in some cases more than two feet - blanketed fields. Besides delaying the harvest, the snow didn't affect the crops, Jobman said.
Likewise, beet farmers in Sidney and those in Wyoming growing for Wyoming Sugar Co. had good years.
"We had a tremendous crop," said Cal Jones, CEO of Wyoming Sugar Co. "We had records in yields, 26 tons per acre, and content, 17.5 percent."
Wyoming Sugar collected slightly less than 10,000 acres of beets from Washakie, Big Horn and Fremont counties.
In far Eastern Montana, the Montana-Dakota Beet Growers Association harvested 24.6 tons per acre and had the highest sugar content in the region, 18.17 percent, said Terry Cayko, association spokesman. Growers were on contract for about 15,000 acres this year, sparking concern that American Crystal Sugar wouldn't keep the Sidney refinery running in future years if more acres weren't locked in.
Cayko said more than 19,000 acres are under contract for 2009. He expected the acreage to reach 21,000 to 22,000 before long.
Producers everywhere were pleased with their crops, given that cold spring temperatures stunted early beet growth. In Western's case, farmers in some areas of Nebraska were forced to replant after late frosts, rain washouts and hail.
This was the first year that farmers planted beets genetically modified to resist the powerful herbicide Roundup, which allowed growers to skip more frequent sprayings with a less-effective herbicide cocktail. Weed control is considered one of the biggest challenges to growing sugar beets.
The old herbicide mix was applied five or six times a growing season. In comparison, Roundup was applied two or three times this season.
Farmers said the plants benefited from being left alone. And without the competition from weeds, the beets came out of the ground healthier.
In Billings, the beet refinery will operate seven days a week through the beginning of February, processing as many beets as possible before the piles spoil.