RENVILLE, Minn. — We kibbitzers at the Chatter Box Café’s ‘round table’ ponder world issues each morning — even huge events such as when the 2021 sugar beet lift kicks into gear. We need ponder no more. On Aug. 25, I enjoyed a brief visit with Todd Geselius, Vice President of Agriculture at Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative. And Todd told me the 2021 lift had just kicked into gear. The first deliveries arrived at the Renville factory at about 10 a.m. that morning!
Other than weather-induced slowdowns, thousands of semis averaging about 25 tons of beets per trailer will persist until this 2021 harvest of just over 121,000 acres is completed. This tremendous harvest involves about 450 beet growers spread out through 16 southwest Minnesota counties.
Geselius said acres planted in 2021 were about equal to last year. “Pretty similar,” he said. “Last year some drowned-outs reduced final harvested acres. That certainly wasn’t an issue this year.”
Certainly, wet spots in fields this season were few and rare. But Geselius said the sugar beet crop survived the drought conditions fairly well. “Root samples this season have been most encouraging, thanks to excellent soil moisture last spring,” he said. “These recent August rains might be a plus also. We’re expecting a very good crop this year. Based on these last root samples, we’re looking at just under 30 tons!”
Geselius related that despite the dry season, the first beets harvested were not particularly clean. “That’s because of yesterday’s rain showers,” he admitted. “They look better than I would have anticipated; but showers the next couple days will likely stop harvest a few days also. We’ve two dumping platforms open today; will have four platforms taking beets tomorrow. And soon we’ll be taking beets at all 12 of our piling sites.”
I noticed two side dumpers — beet trailers with hinged side panels so when the entire trailer is tilted the entire load slides off. I wondered how long it takes to unload. “These side dumping trailers take only about 2 minutes,” Geselius said. “Currently, about 60 percent of our growers have purchased these trailers.”
Geselius went on to explain the time frame for when growers harvest their beets. “During pre-pile, lifting times are very regimented … beause we only want to bring in as many tons as the factory can slice. Factory time is 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. We can do about 16,000 tons a day. About 700 tons per hour moves through the factory. Our factory ‘run time’ is about 250 days (plus or minus), and nonstop, 24 hours per day. That means just a couple months to fix and replace everything needed before the next lift kicks into gear.”
Like many other operations this year, finding workers to run the plant is difficult. Full employment for the factory operation its about 300 people; plus 100 people in the administrative staff. Plus SMBSC hires another 350 people just to assist with harvest at the various piling sites. “It’s been very challenging,” Geselius admitted. “You can’t find a business around here not needing manpower right now.”
Even though Geselius is pleased with how the early phase of harvest looks, he says it’s too early to start predicting on the outcome. “As you so well know, every harvest season is 100 percent weather dependent,” he cautioned. “For example, up until yesterday’s rains, it was looking like a clean and easy harvest. Then the rains dirtied up the beets. Now more rain is predicted next week so we’ll have some slowdowns. But we’ve got smart growers. They’ve got good equipment and hire great workers. Get the right breaks on weather and these guys will get the job done … that’s all I need to say.”
Like most other commodities, Geselius thinks the sugar market will remain strong. “The sugar market’s looking pretty good right now … steady to up a little is my call. So we’re feeling pretty good about markets for this 2021 sugar crop.”
Geselius has been VP of Ag since 2010, but worked as an agriculturist for a few years previous. “I think this is my 16th harvest with the Co-op,” he said. He added the growing area of the co-op hasn’t changed since he began working there. “Acres tend to move around as various growers decide to sell out or enlarge their own operations,” he explained.
“Safety is always of concern,” Geselius stressed. “Our growers put lots of vehicles on the roads as they move from field to field harvesting their beet crop. The firm hauling beets from the piling sites to the factory puts lots of semis on the roads. And we know as the season wraps up, bodies and machines get tired. So I simply remind to always be alert of beet traffic on our roads and highways. It’s a busy, busy season; so everyone please pay attention at all times. We need everyone’s help to assure an accident-free harvest.”
Founded in 1974, Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative is America’s largest sugar beet processing facility. It has a yearly production allotment set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of 5.4 million, 100-pound bags of sugar, which equates to 3 percent of the U.S. domestic market.
Beet sugar is produced in 27 countries worldwide. Russia is number-one in sugar production; Germany ranks second; the United States is third — producing enough sugar each year to meet the needs of 330 million Americans. Approximately 100,000 American farmers grow sugar beets each year. A typical beet weighs 2 pounds, is 75 percent moisture at harvest, and produces 6-8 ounces of processed sugar.