Last year's rough winter means lower sugar yield for sugar beet growers | Idaho Press-Tribune Local News
By Chris Bronson | Idaho Press Tribune
NAMPA — The sugar beet harvest is revealing another casualty of last year’s harsh winter as farmers and producers are reporting a crop that’s not living up to expectations.
Amalgamated Sugar said sugar yields are down 1 percent across the company, as the sugar beet harvest wraps up in Canyon County this weekend.
This year’s harvested tonnage per acre is roughly equal to the average, but the combination of a cold winter, late planting and an unseasonably hot summer means harvested beets have a lower sugar content than usual.
That’s according to Amalgamated Sugar’s agricultural director Wendell Robinson. Because costs to run the co-op’s sugar processing plant in Nampa remain fixed, a 1 percent change in sugar content could mean up to $35 million in lost revenue for Amalgamated Sugar.
Jessica McAnally, communications specialist at Amalgamated Sugar, said that 1 percent difference from the projection just means potentially less sugar to sell — the actual bottom line depends on other market factors.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean lost revenue yet,” McAnally said.
For sugar beets, the total number of beets harvested doesn’t matter as much as what’s inside. This year, when Amalgamated Sugar slices and processes beets gathered from co-op growers, there will just be less sugar to squeeze out of each beet.
While the beets themselves can withstand some types of extreme weather, excessive heat and freezing temperatures can increase disease and decrease the overall sugar content of each beet.
This year, there were 11 days over 100 degrees recorded in Boise and 16 triple-digit days in Ontario, Oregon, this year, according to the National Weather Service in Boise.
“We had several days that were above 100, and that takes its toll,” said Robinson. “We had a little more disease because of the heat and a little more disease because we were irrigating more.”
Companywide, harvested sugar beets were only 17 percent sugar and not the 18 percent that Amalgamated Sugar had projected for 2017. Robinson said those numbers were reflected in the harvest of Canyon County growers, as well. Robinson estimated that growers would bring in about 40 tons an acre this year. Last year, Amalgamated Sugar set a record, bringing in 43 tons an acre companywide, with a high sugar content, as well — 19 percent.
“It’s one of those things that you really, really try to control and think you can control,” Robinson said. “We have all these great tools, but ultimately Mother Nature has the last say.”
Richard Durrant of Big D Ranch in Meridian said he had to replant nearly half of his 280 acres of sugar beets after they were hit with a bad frost in March. Although their harvest is now complete, they still wrapped up harvest about a month behind.
“Beets are pretty temperamental with frost, and about 32 degrees makes them want to die,” Durrant said. “We heard a lot of horror stories.”
Although Cole Farms in Melba replanted 118 of 221 acres of their sugar beets, Kenneth Cole said there was no major effect on their total yield in tons this November. Overall, he said it was a good harvest.
“I planted fairly early the first time, so I was replanting when many people were planting their first,” Cole said.
However, Cole estimates that he will still be making about $20,000 less than expected because the beets he delivered to Amalgamated Sugar had 0.5 percent less sugar than estimated.
“I’d like to have another half percent of sugar,” Cole said. “It costs quite a bit, every point.”
Domestic sugar production in the United States is split between cane sugar and sugar beets. According to the USDA’s Sugar and Sweeteners Outlook for November, Idaho is among the states that’s seen a drop from last year’s sugar beet harvest and from what expectations were for this season. Wyoming, Montana and Oregon were among the states to also see a drop from last year while Minnesota, North Dakota, Nebraska and Colorado all saw gains.
Amalgamated Sugar has approximately 750 sugar beet growers in the co-op, 250 of which are in western Idaho.
Last year, Canyon County sugar beet growers harvested 44 tons an acre, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. That’s a total of 453,000 tons of sugar beets harvested in Canyon County — a mass 24 percent larger than the Empire State Building — and 1.071 million tons in southwest Idaho.
This year, Amalgamated Sugar celebrated its 75th anniversary. The Nampa factory opened in 1942.