Michigan Sugar Ag Vice President Paul Pfenninger Reflects Upon 38 Years in the Beet Industry
Come January 1, the retirement bell rings for one of the most well known individuals in the Michigan sugarbeet industry. Paul Pfenninger, vice president of agriculture for Michigan Sugar Company, is stepping aside after a 38-year immersion in the world of sugarbeets.
“Paul has played a large part in the success of Michigan Sugar Company, and he will be missed,” affirms Rick Gerstenberger, chairman of the cooperative’s board of directors. “His dedication and hard work have helped us set several production records throughout his career. Paul faced a lot of challenges during his tenure as our ag VP, including Roundup Ready® seed genetics approval and compliance, changing seed variety standards, adapting to self-propelled harvesting and many other new technologies. Pile storage management may have been his biggest challenge, and he did an excellent job.”
Steve Poindexter, senior extension sugarbeet educator for Michigan State University and coordinator of the Michigan Sugarbeet Advancement research initiative, has worked with Pfenninger for many years in their respective capacities. “As vice president of agriculture, Paul has always understood the long-term importance of adequately funding research and education,” Poindexter observes. “This commitment has steadily improved yield and quality, making Michigan Sugar growers some of the most profitable in the nation.”
In announcing Pfenninger’s retirement to MSC shareholders in September, Michigan Sugar President and CEO Mark Flegenheimer stated, “Paul’s years of experience and knowledge of the ‘beet business’ has helped successfully guide our cooperative through the harvest and storage of numerous record-setting crops. Paul’s passion for this industry — and compassion for his fellow employees — will be missed.” Jim Ruhlman, a 30-year employee of Michigan Sugar Company, has been named executive vice president with responsibility for overseeing the agriculture, information technology and packaging/warehouse operations areas. Ruhlman previously served as MSC’s vice president of administration.
Paul Pfenninger grew up on a small farm about 20 miles northwest of Bay City. The state contained two sugarbeet processors at that time — both privately held stock companies: Monitor Sugar Company (headquartered at Bay City) and Michigan Sugar Company (headquartered in Saginaw). Following his graduation from Central Michigan University in 1977 with a biology major and chemistry minor, Pfenninger began his sugarbeet career upon being hired as Michigan Sugar’s agricultural laboratory director. “I ran all the sugars, impurities and aminos — and actually made grower payments my first year there off an old programmable calculator,” he recalls.
In 1981 Pfenninger moved up the road to Monitor Sugar as an agronomist. He was promoted to general ag manager six years later and then, in 1993, became Monitor’s vice president of agriculture. Monitor and Michigan Sugar were competitors in the marketplace at that time — and would remain so until 2004, when the two companies became one: the Michigan Sugar Company grower-owned cooperative.
“We competed for the same growers, for the same shelf market,” Pfenninger says of that pre-cooperative era. Ag research initiatives, though, were a combined affair. Monitor, Michigan Sugar and the state’s sugarbeet growers jointly funded and directed production research under the umbrella of the Farmers and Manufacturers Beet Sugar Association.
He’s still just in his early 60s, but Pfenninger can deliver an intriguing history lesson when talking about the “then and now” of sugarbeet production in Michigan. Some examples:
• Beet Seed Cost & Technology — “When I started with Monitor, I used to issue all the seed to every grower. There were three choices: Size 2 of US H20, Size 3 of US H20 or Size 4 of US H20. That was it. Each size had a color, so if you didn’t remember the size number, it was red, green or blue. The seed cost $5.00 a pound, and you bought it in 25-pound bags. We’d even split bags if you only wanted a partial one.
“Seed technology has evolved tremendously, of course — and it continues to change every day, for the better. We have coatings, seed treatments and much improved disease resistance. And then there’s Roundup Ready, which revolutionized the system: how we do weed control, how we can do wind control since we plant in more trash compared to the ‘old days.’ ”
• Row Spacing --“Everybody here used to plant in 28- or 30-inch rows; we didn’t know what narrow rows were. Now we’re close to 50% narrow rows — 20s or 22s, though some of our growers still use the wider spacings.”
• Tillage & Planting --“In the ‘old days,’ you plowed. You didn’t want to see a single corn stalk still standing. Today, that would be a disaster. One year we had 25% replants because of wind. You just don’t see that anymore. Stale seedbeds (no preplant tillage) are a big part of it. And we get out there earlier. We used to say it took 10 days to two weeks to get everything planted. Now, if the weather is favorable, five days and it’s all in.”
• Harvesting --“Oh my God, can they harvest beets! And the trucks our growers are using now! Back in the early ’80s, up in places like Au Gres (Arenac County), 14 tons was the average load. Now the average is over 30. And then there are the self-propelled harvesters — we probably had 55-60 operating in Michigan and Ontario in 2015. Plus a lot of carts and over a dozen Maus operations — all of it helping us clean beets better.”
• Productivity & Storage — “When I started with Monitor in 1981, we had an 18-ton and 18% sugar crop. Our CEO, who was retiring at the time, said, ‘You’ll never see that again.’ Now, if we had an 18-ton average, it would be a disaster. This year we came in at 31.7 tons per acre, company wide.
“When we were at 18 tons, if we sliced beets until the middle of January, that was a long campaign. Then it stretched to early February, mid-February and the first of March. Now, with the yields we’ve been getting, we’re pushing out to the end of March. That has pushed us toward more ventilated piles. We started out with 10,000 tons over vents; now it’s at 770,000 tons. We initially wanted a 14-day supply (of ventilated beets); then a 20-day supply — and now it’s a 35-day supply because the season is going longer all the time.”
• Communication Technology — “I remember when the first fax came in. We (Monitor) were owned by the South Africans (Illovo) at the time. It was on a piece of paper that stretched across the office.
“Now we’re wired 24/7, for good or bad. And our ability to communicate with growers is phenomenal. How did we do it during harvest in the past — snail mails, radio? Today, with cell phones and auto steer, they’ll talk your ear off until they get to the end of the row.”• Transitioning From Two Competitive Stock Companies to One Co-op — “I’ll speak for the ag staff and growers: you’re apprehensive. Here we are, competitors. Then the next day we’re ‘best of buddies.’ But speaking from the ag staff and research side of it, the transition has worked very well. We merged, and everyone picked up and made it successful.
“At the end of the day, it (the merger and co-op formation) was the only way to go. It was how the industry here survived and moved ahead.”
‘It’s been a good career. And I’ve met a lot of wonderful
people. The sugarbeet industry has treated me well.’
Asked about key production challenges facing Michigan Sugar Company and its growers as the calendar flips into 2016, Pfenninger immediately responds with “resistance management.” That includes weeds resistant to glyphosate and diseases tolerant/resistant to certain fungicides.
“Fortunately, we are very diverse in Michigan” when it comes to cropping options, he says. “We have a lot of edible beans in rotations, we have wheat, we have pickles — all crops that force us to use systems other than Roundup Ready. But there also are those rotations with Roundup Ready beets, Roundup Ready soybeans and maybe Roundup Ready corn. That’s not a good stewardship recipe, and we know at some point we’ll have resistant weed pressure. We’ve been trying to educate the growers, and they’re listening. But it’s a process.” Among the more threatening weed species right now in terms of resistance, he adds, are Palmer amaranth and waterhemp.
In terms of fungicide resistance, “we know there’s some resistance building to the strobilurins, and that’s a real concern,” Pfenninger remarks. “Again, we’ve been trying to educate: don’t always use the same class of fungicides. Rotate.”
Managing the quality of beets in storage will continue to be a yearly challenge, Pfenninger says. The new hoop building at Sebewaing (see page 8) is helping address it, as is increased pile ventilation capacity. A new tare policy being introduced by Michigan Sugar also should assist by introducing less dirt into the piles and thus helping reduce root degradation.
Related to storage is a long-held wish of Pfenninger’s — one that has not yet come to fruition: smooth-root beet varieties. USDA breeders have worked on smooth root development for decades, but as yet have not achieved high enough sugar content to make them commercially feasible. “A smooth root, without the sutures and thus carrying a lot less soil, would allow us to get rid of grab rolls, get rid of the damaging equipment we use to get the dirt off — and allow us to store beets longer,” he states. “When you think about the industry as a whole — the amount of dirt we haul across the countryside with those harvested roots, and the settling ponds we have to dredge — smooth roots’ impact could be huge.”
Like many sugar industry leaders who have retired, Paul Pfenninger places personal relationships at the top when it comes to what he has enjoyed — and will miss — the most. Growers, both prior to and since the formation of the co-op, hold a special spot, as do the many sugar company co-workers he’s come to know through the years. Then there are fellow “aggies” throughout the rest of the beet industry, past and present — “a lot of neat people.”
Leadership roles within the sugarbeet industry have added to Pfenninger’s relationship and travel memory profiles as well. He has served as president and longtime board member of both the American Society of Sugar Beet Technologists and the Beet Sugar Development Foundation, as well as a president of Oregon-based West Coast Beet Seed Company, which produces hybrid seed for several companies. Travels to Mauritius and Swaziland while with Monitor Sugar (then owned by South Africa-based Illovo Sugar), as well as several trips to Europe, are prized experiences.
During 2016, however, Pfenninger looks forward to spending more time with his grandchildren, gardening and sitting in a deer blind with his brothers, come November, for more than just a single day.
“It’s been a good career,” Paul Pfenninger affirms. “Very diverse. And, I’ve met a lot of wonderful people. The sugarbeet industry has treated me well.” — Don Lilleboe
Editor & General Manager of The Sugarbeet Grower