RENVILLE, Minn. — Southern Minnesota Sugar Beet Cooperative, with nearly 500 share holders and 380 growers in 2020, is one of the largest farmer-owned sugar beet processing companies in the United States. This huge facility covering over 160 acres was established in 1972. The 1974 sugar beet crop was the first to be processed. Currently this co-op employs 350 full-time employees plus 400 seasonal workers.
In 2020, 380 SMBSC grower units planted 120,600 acres; producing 3.6 million harvested tons. (A typical beet weighs two pounds, is 75 percent moisture, and produces 3 to 5 ounces of sugar.
SMBSC produces enough sugar for 12.5 million people based on current eating habits. Minnesota is the top sugar beet producing state in the nation — accounting for 35 percent of national sugar beet production.
But even with this huge production of sugar from northern grown beets plus cane in southern states, America is a net importer of sugar.
Keith McNamara, 50-year-old Renville County grower, has served 12 years on the SMBSC Board. He said about 77 percent of U.S. total sugar needs are grown by northern beet growers and southern sugar cane farmers.
“All exporting countries are allowed a quota as to how much sugar they can export into our country. This is subject to yearly revisions depending upon world production and continually changing demands for sugar. Thanks to our USDA Farm Bill, there is some stability in yearly revenues for producers. Without this protection, the gyrations of world sugar markets would likely drive many of us into bankruptcy,” said McNamara.
McNamara said he’s content if final data on his 2020 crop shows 30 tons per acre. “Back when my Dad grew beets, 20 tons was a good average. With today’s costs and pricing, we can make 30 tons work. But we have genetic potential to reach 40 tons. With costs increasing year by year, we need to anticipate higher yields on a consistent basis down the road. And that’s why the USDA Sugar Program is an absolute must!”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, Brazil — at 42.1 million tons — continues to be the world leader in sugar production with 48 percent of their crop processed for sugar, 52 percent for ethanol. This season, India rebounded 17 percent up to 33.8 million metric tons because of higher yields and more acres. The United States is up 10 percent to 8.2 million tons due to higher yields of both sugar beets and sugar cane. Production in the European Union is forecast at 16.1 million tons, down for the third straight year because of ongoing drought issues and disease. China is up slightly to 10.5 million tons. Global production for 2020-21 is forecast at 182 million tons with Brazil accounting for three-fourths of the surge.
On April 7 I visited with Todd Geselius, SMBSC vice president of agriculture. I asked what his prediction for a 2021 planting date might be. “It’s each grower’s decision,” Geselius replied, “but weather always dictates the season. We’re gifted with sharp, aggressive growers. With their great equipment, once they crank up, its usually just a few days until that new crop is in the ground.”
Geselius said some growers have moisture concerns, but it’s still early. “Sure, some concern, but it’s still early April. Spring rains are usually reliable,” he said. “Most growers have well-tiled fields, so I’m optimistic about our 2021 season. Check with me in 30 days for a more factual answer.”
“Total acres this year are likely very similar to last season — around 120,000 to 122,000 acres,” he went on to say. “Always some interest in acres by a few growers as one might expect. But we’re always guided by the processing capacity of this great factory. Last year’s crop provided just the right amount of beets.”
Geselius admitted SMBSC still has lots of beets to get processed. “We’re still hauling beets from Buffalo Lake piling site; just opened the big Bird Island piling site. And all these deliveries include still-frozen beets.” He estimated the plant will complete processing in late May.
“We’ve had our ups and downs, much like every season; but for the most part it’s been going good. This year something new … dextran in beets already piled. It is caused by a bacteria in the soil and plugs part of the filtering process which means more frequent cleaning of the filters which somewhat slowed daily processing. Our guys found a product called Dextranase which solved the problem. There’s nothing the growers could have done; nor anything we could have done with beets already piled. Plus, last November we had eight days with temps above 60 degrees — almost reaching 80 degrees; and that’s what really created the problem.”
“It’s a somewhat complicated process and yes, we’re always susceptible to the vagaries of Mother Nature,” Geselius continued. “Beets coming in from our piling sites (including beets piled here at the factory) are still frozen like a brick. Once in the factory, the factory has to basically defrost them before they can extract the sugar. And this slows us to 400/500 tons an hour rather than our more normal 700 tons per hour through the factory.
So what’s ahead for this 45-year old organization which primes the economic pump for hundreds of support businesses throughout this area?
Geselius responded, “The genetics keep getting better; we get more tons, better sugar. The real constraint to growth is our factory size. We can only process so many beets each season. The factory did an expansion in 2000. We continue to try to get better at what we do. If equipment changes are needed, so be it. Maximum capacity is always the goal of a factory operation of this complexity and this many employees. We go as fast as we can until that last beet is processed.”