Like many crops this season, sugar beets also were off to a quick start. But an early August harvest start slowed considerably when mid-August temps ramped up beyond 90 degrees.
Steve Dahm, President and CEO of Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative in Renville, Minn., said the high temperatures are too much of a good thing. “Yes, our growers are lifting beets; and our factory is processing at our daily capacity of 16,000 tons per day. However, we’ve had to slow down field harvest simply to limit accumulated tonnage at our various piling sites. Once temps reach 75-80 degrees we don’t want beets on the ground more than five to six days.”
And the reason is obvious. These huge vegetative root masses don’t take kindly to just laying in a pile in hot weather.
Like most production/management gurus, Dahm hesitates on predicting final production for this 2020 season. “Our guys have done a phenomenal job keeping diseases — especially circospora — under control,” he said. “Yes, we believe the fruits of our labor will be rewarded; but we’re still at Mother Nature’s behest. She could still trigger some dirty tricks on us. Circospiroa is our number-one leaf disease every year. It burns the leaves taking sugar out of the beets. We’re in the business of producing sugar, so keeping a healthy top on our sugar beet plants is always a top priority.”
Dahm wouldn’t comment on the possibility of 30-ton yields; but he did say, “We’ll have a good crop.”
Labor challenges? So far so good according to Dahm. “Our HR department has been terrific … every job filled — which is quite remarkable given the job market today.”
SMBSC employs over 350 full-time workers and half again that many at the various piling sites. “We’ve been fortunate, Dahm admitted. “We instituted some strict Covid-19 guidelines and not yet a positive case. That’s a testament to our employees. They pay attention. They understand why and they cooperate.”
Dahm also noted upwards of 150 contractor employees doing maintenance work this summer getting this huge plant ready for the 2020 startup campaign. “They bought into what we were doing. They wanted to stay healthy. They appreciated their job and everybody worked together to make it happen!”
Come October, everything at this incredibly busy complex cranks up 24/7. And that hectic schedule continues until the processing campaign finally shuts down after slicing upwards of 3.6 million tons of beets.
“Normally you want harvesting wrapped by late October/early November,” Dahm explained, “But some rain delays are inevitable. And we know that hard freeze can come any time.”
Dahm said unlike corn, soybean and livestock producers, continually pressing for stronger export markets; the sugar beet industry sort of just stays in ‘cruise control.’ There are no sugar exports — neither cane or beet sugar. Which says virtually every pounds of U.S. sugar production is consumed domestically.
Dahm did indicate some sugar imports through trade deals agreed to in previous years. And yes, U.S. beet growers and cane growers are partners. “We both grow sugar and there is not a scientific test identifying any difference between refined beet sugar and refined cane sugar,” summed up Dahm.