Russ Mauch was a student at North Dakota State University in the fall of 1974 — a time that coincided with the first harvest for growers of the new Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative. Among the original stockholders in the Wahpeton, N.D.- based co-op were Mauch’s father and brother, Bernard and Randy. They needed more manpower to bring in that initial beet crop, and Russ made himself available. “So I took off the fall semester of my sophomore year to drive sugarbeet truck,” he smilingly recounts.
Though the cattle may be long gone, Russ Mauch’s cash crop enterprise has grown considerably through the years. Today, he and his partner — brother-in-law Rick Bladow — farm about 7,500 acres. Corn is planted on approximately 80% of their acres, with sugarbeets on 15% and soybeans on the remaining 5%.
(Like other past and present ASGA leaders, Mauch is quick to credit the folks at home who keep the farm running while he is absent on sugarbeet business. Without Rick Bladow and Rick’s son, Chris, handling day-to-day operations back in Barney, Mauch affirms, “it would be impossible” for him to serve as ASGA president.)
Always ready to innovate, Mauch was among the first in the Minn-Dak area to plant cover crops on lighter ground, back in the latter 1980s. He and brother Bill took an old Alloway planter, removed its units, and installed two S-tines over each row, followed by a set of harrow teeth. The “inverted cultivator” provided what was, in essence, an early form of strip tillage, with the primary motivation being protection against spring wind erosion and the conservation of soil moisture in what were then some very dry years.
More recently, Mauch was one of the first Minn-Dak growers to embrace the spreading of spent beet lime on his
fields. He began doing so several years ago as a means of combating Aphanomyces. Since then, he’s also come to view the lime as an important component of his fertility program. Today, all of the Mauch and Bladow fields have had lime applied at rates of from four to 12 tons per acre.
So what, as of 2009/10, does Russ Mauch view as his most critical sugarbeet production challenge?
“Drainage,” is his unhesitating reply. The southern Red River Valley has been going through a wet cycle since the early 1990s, and in some years excess moisture has strongly impacted the yield and quality of a number of Minn-Dak fields — Mauch’s included. “We had terrible sugarbeet yields in the wet years of 2005, 2007 and 2009,” he says. “But we had excellent crops in the [drier] years of 2006 and 2008 — and hopefully we’ll have that again in 2010.”
Last year, Mauch was unable to drive equipment through a “preventive plant” field until literally July 20. That day, they disked the old corn stalks. Mauch hired a contractor to tile the field in September — and the tile line water flowed the remainder of the fall. On the field’s sandier portions, the lines were 80 feet apart; on the heavier clay areas, about 40 feet.
Mauch has since purchased a drain tile plow, stringer and backhoe, and intends to start installing subsurface drainage on his remaining acreage. “We’re so serious about it that we’re going to go right into standing corn ground [in 2010],” he says. The goal is to have subsurface drainage on all his cropland within five years (subject to approval by any affected neighbors). The result, he’s confident, will be consistently improved yields, quality and disease control.
A 12-year member of the Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative Board of Directors, Mauch still serves as the coop’s treasurer. He also has been a director of Minn-Dak Yeast Company and Midwest Agri-Commodities, and currently is a board member of United Sugars Corporation.
Like dozens of other sugarbeet growers, Mauch spent part of late February in Washington, D.C., visiting members of Congress and their staffs. Together, he and his fellow beet producers stopped at more than 200 congressional offices, educating Capitol Hill personnel on the sugar industry and the importance of the sugar program. “It’s a continual education process on how the sugar program works — and why it’s working so well,” he affirms. “It has not cost the federal government any money since 2002 — and it is projected not to through 2020.”
While certain congressional members and staffs are somewhat familiar with the sugarbeet sector, many are not. “With some of them,” Mauch says, “we have to basically start out with a picture of a sugarbeet and ask, ‘Have you ever seen a sugarbeet? Do you know where sugar comes from?’ Generally, people think sugar comes from sugarcane. But 54% of [domestically produced] sugar comes from sugar beets.”
Some congressional office stops generate more interest than others, Mauch concedes. But the fact that the visitors are “bonafide sugarbeet farmers” is usually a big plus. Members of Congress typically “are very interested in talking to people who are trying to make their living out in the country,” he observes.
“A lot of congressmen follow (Minnesotan and House Ag Committee Chairman) Collin Peterson’s lead,” Mauch remarks. “They may understand some things about agriculture and the sugar program — but they rely on Collin’s advice. Having a leader like him in Congress really helps.”
While the state of the sugarbeet industry is generally strong right now, ASGA leaders have no intention of becoming complacent. Priorities for 2010 include continued monitoring of the international trade scene, close attention to the legal challenge to the use of Roundup Ready® sugarbeets, the “cap and trade” climate change legislation proposals, the ongoing administration of domestic sugar policy — and any other emerging issues that may impact beet growers.
“We are always concerned about what’s coming up behind and around us,” Mauch affirms. “We’re not a big industry, and small changes in policy could really hurt us. So we’re always monitoring what’s out on the horizon, trying to be proactive.”
A key strength of the U.S. sugar industry, ASGA’s new president concludes, is the united voice with which it addresses important issues. “We work together,” Russ Mauch emphasizes. “Any issues that pop up, we resolve internally. We never bring a divided industry to Washington.
“Speaking with a unified voice is truly a source of our strength.” — by Don Lilleboe