The past few years have been rough on sugar beet farmers. Lack of stability in the sugar market has made forecasting difficult. Now, prices have stabilized, but mother nature is acting as the spoiler.
“It’s still the job I want to do, still the job I love,” Willwood area sugar beet farmer Cody Easum said before pausing. “Just got to feed the family sometimes too.”
After a slow start hampered by rain and cold, the beet growing season was struck again with adversity when a two-day cold snap hit in mid-October, immediately followed by a week of mild temperatures.
“It damages those tissues in there and as they’re healing they’re decaying,” Easum said.
Although the freeze and thaw did not outright destroy local beets, it causes liquids to run through the vegetable and spoil other beets placed around them in stockpiles.
“Once you’re in the pile, that’s when you want it to get cold,” Easum said. “Because then it’s like a refrigerator.”
When a beet freezes and thaws its sugar content drops significantly and correspondingly, so does the price sugar companies offer for the product. It also adds work for the farmers who need to take tops off the beets in order for the factory to process them.
Also making matters difficult was a summer hailstorm and consistently rainy weather. That made it hard for beets to be dug from the soil.
“Tonnage is down and sugar is down,” said Easum, who has been growing beets for eight years. “Just hasn’t been a real good year.”
Keith Schuebel has been farming beets on his Cody farm for more than 30 years. Many sugar beet farmers toss out the year 2009 when referencing prior bad crops, but he said this fall has been even worse.
“That year we were still able to harvest clear into November,” Schuebel said.
Compared to last year, this year’s harvest is indisputably worse. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, as of Oct. 20, Wyoming beet farmers were 25 percent behind 2018 when it came to harvesting, and 12 percent behind the five-year average.
“We’re 2-3 weeks behind where we should be,” Willwood farmer Larry French said.
This trend has been felt nationwide with similar conditions occurring in the upper midwest.
Even though it’s been a low year, one would hardly know staring at the mountainous heaps of beets at the stockpile operated by Western Sugar in Willwood, with about 21,000 tons on-hand last week.
The beet pile has been averaging about 1,160 tons per day brought in. In a typical year that number is about 3,000-4,000 tons, pile supervisor Cagney Hetland said.
“It is very rough,” said Hetland, who has been working at the facility for 11 years.
If this past weekend hasn’t killed the harvest, she expects the harvest to continue well into November.
For independent farmers like Easum and Schuebel, a tough harvest can be devastating.
French assists Easum with harvesting 190 acres of beets in the area east of Cody. He said it’s hard to see his friend going through such a hard time.
“It’s the same for all my farmer friends,” French said.
Last Thursday, Easum was harvesting at a frenzied pace due to approaching colder weather, but with only three trucks to transport beets to the beet pile and an entire field left, it seemed inevitable some of Easum’s beets were going to get left to rot.
“I don’t think I’m going to make a profit,” he said.
In 2017, the Wyoming Business Council provided more than $5 million in disaster relief for sugar beet farmers. WBC said it has not yet been approached for loans attached to this year’s harvest.
The current cold snap is not making matters great for the beets, but it’s not yet a death-knell at this point.
“We’re hopeful” Schuebel said. “It’s really a storage issue.”
Another problem with frozen beets is that the Western Sugar Cooperative factory in Lovell, which is the only local processor, can only process a certain quantity and must separate them from the non-spoiled batch.
Because of such the company has had to initiate quota limits for how many beets it can accept. Schuebel said Western Sugar recently initiated a 7-ton per contracted acre limit on farmers, which he reached but others did not.
Schuebel is at about 60 percent with his beet harvest right now. Even in historically bad 2009, he said he had less than 10 percent remaining. Less lucky farmers he said, are between 25-50 percent harvested.
He said he won’t make a profit on this year’s crop, but he has crop insurance to cover for unusual weather circumstances like these. This safety net only covers the money Schuebel puts in to farming the beets, but he said many farmers can’t even afford this protection for bad seasons like this year.
“No one is quitting yet but that might be the banker’s decision,” Schuebel said with a sad chuckle. “You hate to see it – it takes everybody in the co-op to succeed.”