"The American sugar producer is one of the most efficient sugar producer in the world," states Ervin Schlemmer, a beet grower in Joliet, Mont. As a member of the Western Sugar Cooperative, Schlemmer believes, "Sugar has been and always will be a major ingredient in our food supply."
Knowing that the world population will continue to grow and is expected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050, American growers will need to produce twice what they produce today.
High-populated countries that are still developing like, China and India, are demanding better foods and products. Schlemmer says civilians in those countries want to eat and dress like Americans and the growers in America have the technology and desire to make that happen.
When Roundup Ready beet seed became available, Schlemmer was more than enthusiastic. "On our farming operation, RR sugarbeets couldn't have come at a better time."
Compared to conventional beet seed where the current herbicide applications for weed control were just not working, Schlemmer recalls how they "were forced to use heavier and heavier rates of four and five different tank mixes."
Those mixes also hurt yield and they had to spray more often. Finding laborers for weed hoeing was non-existent.
Now, however, RR beets have simplified their operation. By spraying only two or three times they also have increased yields.
Maintaining a concern for this new technology, Schlemmer also finds that with this new and improved method using RR beet seed, it comes at a price called tech fees.
Thinking back on his father and grandfather's era of growing beets, Schlemmer fondly notes that despite their own set of challenges, they could only dream about growing beets with the tools of today.
They would have been amazed "by using Roundup to kill all the weeds and pivots for irrigation. Also, we dig as many beets in one day as they dug in a season. Because of the RR technology, my son and grandchildren won't be exposed to the cocktail of chemicals that past generations have been exposed, and it is safer for us and the environment."
An Ideal Farming Family
After graduating from high school in 1972, Schlemmer started growing beets with 30 acres that first year.
He and his family corporation are members of the Western Sugar Cooperative.
"My wife and I have three children who all grew up helping on the farm doing irrigation, combining, hoeing beets, tractor work and truck driving. Now our family corporation includes me, my wife and son Greg. He is our oldest son and came back to the farm after college with his wife, Rachel, to become a partner. Rachel is a great help on the farm when she has time with also raising three children."
The Schlemmers' oldest daughter Sara, and, her husband, Ben, help out when a beet truck needs driven or meals need fixing at harvest. Ben is also the deputy sheriff in the county and together they are raising a daughter.
The youngest child, Erin, is a junior in college and enjoys coming out to help with irrigation and meal preparation during the summers when she is off.
Together they farm about 1,200 acres with 300 in beets. The crop rotations include silage corn for their feedlot, malting barley and pinto beans.
"Our farm feeds 4,000 head of cattle, and I also manage another feedlot with a separate partner that feeds 10,000 head."
Like most farming careers, Schlemmer enjoys the good times as well as faces the challenging times. However, he says that for their operation, the biggest challenge is finding good labor for irrigation. "Since we are farming more ground, we are adding more center pivots all the time. They are the answer. And with RR beets, weeds and diseases are not that big of a problem anymore. Newer seed treatments and disease resistant genetics have made farming better."
Besides being more cost effective, Schlemmer notes that they have more time for themselves and their families. The new technologies and center pivot irrigation systems have brought higher yields, less passes over the fields and less labor.
They try to get the seed in the ground by the middle of April. Regular harvest starts October 2; however, depending on the size of the crop, it is possible to begin harvest the first week in September.
"We are very fortunate because the majority of our beets are less than a mile from the pile, which is located on our farm." They like to get 30 tons per acre, and some years they exceed that, but some years like this one with a cool, wet spring the average was mid to high 20s. Sugar was 16 ½ to 17 percent.
The excitement of RR beet seed availability was pretty hard to ignore. Leaders at the Western Sugar Cooperative were eager to get the seed to the growers. This cooperative is not involved in any additional business interest. They are only interested in sugar and how it best benefits their shareholders.
"Roundup Ready beets have made our cooperative very successful," recalls Schlemmer, "When our co-op was getting started in 2002, it was difficult to get growers to raise beets. Now, ten years later our shares have increased in value substantially, along with the price of sugar." In March 2012, the Western Sugar Cooperative will celebrate 10 years.
Words of Advice
Schlemmer recalls that since he began farming in the 70s, the sugar industry has had a fine share of challenges. "From the Farm Bill, cheap prices, the damaging effects of Mother Nature or high input costs. The American farmer has prevailed.
"We have always had the best industry leaders to ensure a good Farm Bill, and this insures price stability. We have better crop insurance to help with Mother Nature, and we are making progress each year in this area. We also have the technology that is making our production easier and more efficient."
In 1992, Schlemmer was elected to the local board of The Mountain States Beet Grower Association. Later in 2000, the local association board president, Edwin Kuntz, passed away and Schlemmer was elected to fill his position on the board of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association.
He has been the local board vice president since 2000 and now elected president.
"On the American Board, I have held the office of treasurer and served as chairman of other committees as well. I also represent the AS GA on the Sugar Association as a board member."
He's been Montana Growth Through Agriculture Council member for 8 years. It provides grants and loans for new and innovative ideas in agriculture. Also, as a member of the Sugar Industry Biotech Committee, Schlemmer has been involved in the events introducing RR to the growers from the beginning.
"Even though we have been successful getting RR beets, the process has been very challenging. I realize we have many hurdles ahead of us, but I also believe we have the best, most dedicated group of people on the plant working on these issues."