Upper Midwest Sugarbeet Fixtures Larry Smith (left) & Allan Cattanach (right) Reflect Upon Their Lengthy Careers
Allan Cattanach grew up on a central Wisconsin hog and dairy farm. Larry Smith’s father was a John Deere dealer in east central Minnesota. Having spent their formative years far away from sugarbeet country, neither could have imagined that their respective careers would end up being constructed around this crop. But that’s exactly what transpired — and now, after nearly four decades as two of the most recognizable names and faces in the Upper Midwest sugarbeet community, both men are transitioning toward retirement.
Smith, who joined the staff of the University of Minnesota’s Northwest Experiment Station at Crookston in 1971, fully retires from the university in May. Cattanach, who became American Crystal Sugar Company’s general agronomist in 1998 following more than two decades as University of Minnesota/ North Dakota State University extension sugarbeet specialist, is “on a phased retirement plan.” He expects a more-defined timetable to be worked out by this coming summer in consultation with his Crystal employers.
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Everyone’s career eventually winds down, of course. But it’s safe to say that the departures of Smith and Cattanach will definitely leave those proverbial “big shoes to fill.” Both men have made huge contributions to sugarbeet growers and the region’s beet industry in general. Both likewise are recognized for their distinctive communications styles: straight-talking, forthright — and often laced with humor.
They've also known and worked with each other for the bulk of their careers. After earning his B.S. and Ph.D. degrees (the latter in agronomy, with minors in soils and plant pathology) from the University of Minnesota, Smith joined the university’s Crookston station as a general agronomist in 1971, focusing on plant breeding and weed control. When the university created the new position of “sugarbeet agronomist” at Crookston in 1978, Smith was a natural fit.
After earning his B.S. in soil science from the University of Wisconsin, Cattanach received a graduate assistantship to North Dakota State University to work on his master’s degree. Uncle Sam called next, and he spent two years in the army during the Vietnam War. After his discharge, Cattanach joined the NDSU Extension Service, first as assistant county agent in Pembina County and then as the Renville County extension agent. In 1975 he returned to Fargo as the UM/NDSU extension sugarbeet specialist.
Six years later, Cattanach received a sabbatical to work toward his Ph.D. in soil science from the University of Minnesota. He conducted his field research at the UM-Crookston station. (“Yeah, we had to do his thesis work for him,” Smith quips in a trademark wisecrack. “I took any help I could get,” Cattanach jokes in response.) Though they were already acquainted, that period cemented a close professional and personal relationship between the two men that continues to this day.
In 1983 Smith went into administration, becoming the head of the UM Northwest Experiment Station (later renamed the Northwest Research and Outreach Center). He held that post for 27 years — but all the while continuing to conduct field research. In 2010 Smith left the administrative chair and returned to being a full-time sugarbeet agronomist.
Both men have received a number of professional awards throughout their careers, including the Sugarbeet Distinguished Service Award from the Sugarbeet Research and Education Board of Minnesota and North Dakota. They've been board members of the American Society of Sugar Beet Technologists (Cattanach is ASSBT’s immediate past president), and Cattanach also has served as president of the Beet Sugar Development Foundation.
Last fall, Larry Smith and Allan Cattanach sat down with me for a reflective interview. We covered a wide range of topics, from the “hot” issues facing Upper Midwest sugarbeets in the early days of their careers, to some prognostications on what the future holds. Here are excerpts from that conversation. — Don Lilleboe
What were some of the big production challenges facing the region’s sugarbeet community when you fellows were really “getting your feet wet” with this crop in the mid- and latter-1970s?
— and if you suggested anyone use a population higher than that, they thought, “Holy Cow, no way!” They wanted basketballs to harvest. In those early years, there was a lot of resistance to that change — even from ag staff.
Smith: When we started recommending 150 beets per 100 feet of row, just about every fieldman told us, “You’re going to kill the industry! They (the smaller beets) won’t store in the piles!” But we went from less than 100 beets per 100 feet of row to where now we’re at 190, 200 — sometimes even higher. And look at how long we’re able to store them — though, of course, a lot of it is due to storage research, too.
What are some other obvious contrasts between that era and sugarbeet production today?
Cattanach: Weed control is one, for sure. We went from the vast majority of the weed control being done by mechanical
cultivation and migrant labor . . . to Dexter’s* micro-rate program in the latter ’90s where virtually everybody started to adopt it and labor really started disappearing . . . to 2008, when Roundup Ready® beets came into use. Now, there’s hardly any labor left. The size of equipment is another huge difference, of course. Three- and four-row beet lifters were very typical when I started. People said there would never be eight-row lifters; and when the eight-row ones did come on the market, they were sure there would never be 12-row lifters!
* Alan Dexter was sugarbeet weed specialist
with the University of Minnesota/
North Dakota State University from 1969
until his retirement in 2007. He, Cattanach
and Smith worked together on numerous
research and extension projects.
The size of the growing units was so much smaller then as well. We (American Crystal) had 2,500 or thereabouts beet growers at one time, and nearly all of them grew their beets. Now, we’re down to 720 “harvest units.” There are a few more “growing units,” but still under 750. So we went from averaging 100 to 200 acres per grower, to today averaging between 600 to 700.
A field man in those days worked with probably 100 growers; today, they have an average of about 30. So they can be more-effective educators today. They can really tune in to their growers and have more one-on-one face time.
Al, when you look at Larry’s most important contributions to the beet industry through the years, what stands out?
Cattanach: Well, nitrogen rates and plant populations were big things, as I’ve already mentioned. Larry also led the way in going to starter fertilizer use. Almost no one was doing that in the early 1990s; today, almost 90% of our growers use starter.
Fungicides are another area. He ran many, many fungicide trials, testing new compounds for Cercospora, for instance. He also did a lot of variety testing, and I think he helped make growers more aware of the importance of choosing the right variety for the right conditions in a given field.
He also was a major force in education, highly respected by the growers. Dexter and I always thought Larry was one of the very best people to go to a grower’s field, look at a problem and diagnose that problem — whether a seed issue, an insect, an environmental problem or the grower messing up with the planting. Larry was an outstanding field diagnostician. He helped a heck of a lot of growers and agricultural staff.
The Crookston experiment station had a 200-acre-plus commercial beet contract with American Crystal that was often used for research. Because they were doing field-scale research, he could really relate to problems growers had. It made their research that much more relevant.
Larry, same question to you about Al: What have been some of his most important contributions?
Cattanach: Pretty much. Growers don’t like four or five “wishy-washy” options to choose from. They’re more like, “Give me one, and I’ll decide if I like it and whether I’m going to use it.” We both probably drove our higher administrators
at the university a little crazy.
Smith: I always remember Dexter once wrote something for me that said, “He has a tendency to use very vitriolic language.” I had to look it up to see what “vitriolic” meant!
Cattanach: Al (Dexter) tempered things I wrote and was going to say on more than one occasion . . . .
Looking ahead, what are some of the more-significant changes you foresee in sugarbeet production during the next five to 10 years?
‘Social media — texting — is the way we communicate
with growers today.’
Cattanach: Something I’m seeing right now in the official variety trials for the American Crystal growing area — and I think the same thing is happening in Minn-Dak, Southern Minnesota and other sugarbeet areas — is tremendous variety improvement. The quality of seed has improved dramatically in the last 10 years, and I think that pace will quicken over the next five to 10 years. The varieties available for 2014 have a significant jump in yield potential from what was raised
just two or three years ago.
When I started in beets in 1975, the beet seed was terrible. It was of poor quality, it was full of trash and dust, and we didn't coat it much. Today, overall seed technology — the breeding, the coatings, fungicides, things like NipsIt® SUITE, Poncho Beta®, the insecticides that go on the seed, the XBeet® type products — has brought so much improvement.
Communication is another big area of change. Social media — especially texting — is the way we communicate with growers today. Five years ago, it wasn't relevant.
Smartphones. We developed our first smartphone apps for Rhizoctonia, root maggot and Cercospora, and growers like them — especially the younger growers.
Then there’s the equipment technology, RTK guidance systems being a good example. And now you can adjust harvesters on the go from the tractor cab. I host a lot of tour groups from our customer-companies like Kraft, General Mills and Nestles. Frequently, I put those people in the jump seat of a tractor cab, and they are amazed at all the technology that’s in there and what the operator can do and what he can find out while he’s driving down the field.
Variable-rate seeding is catching on, too. We’ll likely soon see more than one variety being planted in a given field by a given planter.
Smith: I agree with Al’s comments about seed. Years ago, the target was “20 tons and 20% sugar.” People used to say, “Well, in the north (northern Red River Valley), they don’t have enough season to get 20 tons.” But recently there have been growers with 30- or 32- ton yields up there in even a “mediocre” growing season.
The quality of the genetics is so much better today — especially from the yield end.
How about the some of the bigger challenges, problems that we’ll be confronting during the next several years and beyond?
Cattanach: Pest problems will be a big challenge. They always have been, and they’ll continue to be. Weed resistance is going to be a continuing concern, too. Resistance to glyphosate is a big, big deal, and it’s not going away.
Labor recruitment will continue to be challenging for sugarbeet processors. That includes not only staffing our piling stations during harvest, but also staffing in our factories. It is very difficult to maintain full staffing in the factories.
On the ag end, in the last six months (prior to October) we lost three outstanding agronomists who had been with Crystal five years, 16 years and 20 years, respectively. The recruitment of quality people to our ag department staff is going to be a serious challenge in the next 10 years. A lot of the “old guys” like Larry and I — in allied industry as well as universities — have retired or are retiring, and the land grant universities are not turning out enough graduates for the ag industry.
American Crystal is probably going to develop an intern program for (ag) people we want to hire in the future. We already have a strong intern program with engineers in the factories, and we think we need to copy that in agriculture to get the really top-quality people down the road.
Looking back across your respective careers, what facets stand out as being particularly satisfying, enjoyable?
Smith: One of the big satisfactions to me has been that we (the UM-Crookston station) were fortunate to have commercial beets. We’re not stockholders in American Crystal; but this has allowed us to take our research from the small plot and put it on a field scale before we gave the results to the growers.
The most amazing thing about beet growers is how fast they will adopt something. The quality of the growers and how they would take technology, equipment, seed and run with it has been remarkable.
Some of the research, too, you did just so growers didn't get taken to the cleaners. I hate to see anybody take advantage of our growers.
Testing products or methods to find out what will work for growers has been a big part of it all. When we didn't have any Cercospora controls and were testing new chemicals — and then found something that worked — that was exciting. But then you also have products that stop working after a few years, so it’s a matter of going back, figuring out what happened — and coming up with something else. It’s always about trying to stay ahead of the curve.
Cattanach: I've had great satisfaction in the extension aspects of my job. In a lot of ways, I’m an extension agronomist here at American Crystal. Taking research from the University of Minnesota, NDSU or wherever — and then seeing it adapted to growing beets here in Minnesota and North Dakota has given me great satisfaction. Seeing growers take and use information that helps keep them viable with healthy farming operations has been very enjoyable. A lot of my career has consisted of trying to be a change agent: taking research, putting it into practice and seeing it be successful.
I've also had a great deal of satisfaction from interacting with our ag staff here at American Crystal and as well as, to a lesser degree, ag staffs at the other co-ops. Watching young agronomists, who maybe didn't have a background in sugarbeets, develop into highly effective agronomists who help growers be very successful has been a lot of fun.
Smith: The greatest fun I’ve had has been working with several generations of beet growers. When I came to Crookston (in 1971), it was a time when a lot of young guys were coming back to the farm. So we were the same age, and we grew up together. They took over the family farm from their dads — and now I’m working with their sons. That experience to me has been the highlight of my career.
‘I want to be around
to get a look at the
first 24-row beet lifter!’
In my tenure in sugarbeets, people have written off the beet industry probably 10 times, due to political crises or whatever. But what do we do? We pull through. It’s kind of like that damn beet: you put it in the ground, you don’t give it any water (as was the case for much of the 2013 season in the Red River Valley) — and look at the crop we ended up with! Nobody would have predicted it.
One more thing when it comes to what I see in five or 10 years: I want to be around to get a look at the first 24- row beet lifter!
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Editor & General Manager of The Sugarbeet Grower