Western Sugar wrapped up its beet processing in January, an early end caused by a rough October harvest.
An early October snow and freezing temperatures cut two weeks off a month critical to cooperative members piling beets for the Billings factory. Those piles typically supply the factory into February.
The sugar is sold under the “GW” brand, or bagged with a supermarket label.
The early expectation was that Billings-region farmers would produce about 34.9 tons an acre with a sugar content of 19%. The October weather delays left about 30% of the beets yet to be harvested when November arrived.
“We lost about 4,500 acres in the Billings area. That equates to a few tons of sugar. You have to have the raw sugar to sell,” said Butch Ewen, a Western Sugar Cooperative farmer near Huntley.
After the freeze, farmers harvested a couple tons of frozen beets each. Frozen beets spoil fast, which means there’s a limited time in which the beets can be turned to sugar. This was the second year in a row that a cold, wet October cut into an otherwise good crop.
Sugar beet farming is a $100 million industry along the Yellowstone River from Fromberg to Sidney, and along the Big Horn River drainage near Hardin.
On the lower Yellowstone River near Sidney, they are still processing beets at Sidney Sugars. Farmer Don Steinbeisser Jr. said farmers in Eastern Montana managed to get nearly 99% of their beets dug up. The area dealt with October cold, but it wasn’t socked by snow like south-central Montana, which received a foot in places.
“We did get some snow in the end, but we didn’t get as cold as they did and we got 99% of them out,” Steinbeisser said. “A couple guys had beets left on the edges of their fields, by then it was so muddy and snowy and they said ‘we’re done.’”
Steinbeisser said the Sidney factory would process beets for about another week.