Keeping it Sweet in Michigan

Published in the November 2012 Issue Published online: Nov 06, 2012 Gary Rawlings
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"(left to right) Max the dog, Mike McCormack, Shane Curns, Louie Bullen, Aaron Struble and Mike Bonter all enjoy their work on the McCormack's fourth-generation farm..
"Shane Curns, Louie Bullen, Aaron Struble, Mike Bonter and Max scout the fields almost every day, ensuring they grow the best crop they can.

The southern-most sugarbeet grower in Michigan is also the most extraordinary.

Mike McCormack doesn't mind his 122-mile-long haul to the Michigan Sugar Company's Bay City, Mich., factory. He's just very excited to have the opportunity to grow sugarbeets.

"I'm very passionate about sugarbeets. However, I did not grow up with the opportunity of growing them in our area west of Lansing, Michigan," McCormack said. Michigan Sugar Company had a factory in Lansing which closed in the late `50s, and beets left the area.

"But talking with the old timers, I always saw their dismay with losing sugarbeets in their rotation. This was before the primed monogerm Roundup-tolerant seed, multiple-row harvesters pulled with MFD tractors, and trucks with 50-ton payloads we use today. So I always felt beets would be a good addition and add diversity to our mostly corn and soybean area," McCormack explained.

The McCormacks conversed with a Monitor Sugar Company field man in 1998. He told them they were looking to expand their acreage and "would consider our area. When he asked about our crop rotation and was told we used Pursuit herbicide on our soybean acreage, he said quit using Pursuit and call us in five years."

So, the McCormacks did. "In 2003, we signed up to grow 300 acres for Monitor Sugar Company after bumping into Tom Slaughter, a Monitor field man." McCormack noted that Pursuit still haunted them in some spots even after six years.

In 2004, Monitor Sugar Company merged with the recently formed Michigan Sugar Company Co-Op and the McCormacks decided to commit to sugarbeets long term. They purchased 500 shares.

"Our beet fields are mostly fall-tilled and worked once in the spring before planting with a 12-row, White three-point-hitch 8722 planter using RTK steering system," Mike explained.

The McCormack family has enjoyed sugarbeets. The crop has allowed them to expand into cucumbers that are harvested during the summer months, which complement the fall beet harvest in October and November.

Mike and his wife, Pam, live in Sunfield, Mich. They grow silage corn for the family's 150-cow dairy, dry grain corn, alfalfa, cucumbers/pickles, and occasionally wheat, soybeans and dry beans all in the Sunfield, Portland, Eagle and Grand Ledge areas.

Mike's step-son Louie Bullen along with Mike's brother, John, and John's two sons, Jason and Justin, currently work the fourth-generation farm started by Mike and John's grandfather, Justin McCormack. Employees Aaron Struble, Shane Curns and Mike Bonter round out the work force.

"We have great crews that keep everything moving, repaired and serviced. In addition to our full-time help, we have several good people who come back year after year to help during beet harvest."

Mike, a paraplegic as a result of an auto accident in 1985, keeps things organized and in line on the farm with the use of a four-wheeler and iPhone. While he runs the harvester, Pam takes care of all the topping and is affectionately known as the "Topper Chick." It takes about 12 people to run the beet harvest, plus additional outside trucking for the trip to Bay City.

While everyone is always excited to start harvest, they are equally excited when it is finished.

As the only beet grower in the area, Mike says they miss the neighbor-to-neighbor beet discussions and visits, but attend all the Michigan Sugar meetings they can and talk to good beet grower friends not only in eastern Michigan, but in Colorado and Nebraska as well. "We had to educate ourselves on everything from planting to harvesting. Michigan Sugar Company's agricultural staff has been excellent to work with and supportive from the start."

Using the best genetics offered by Crystal Beet Seed and Hilleshög, McCormack has been able to increase tonnage in some years to 30-plus. His challenges are Rhizoctonia and Cercospora leaf spot. He T-band sprays Quadris at planting and then follows with another spray at the six- to eight-leaf stage. He comes back with three or four more broadcast applications for Cercospora.

Michigan Sugar allows them to use beet carts and a mouse-style system for field cleaning, which has become more popular in Michigan. They use an Art's Way 898 Harvester that lifts six 30-inch rows. They never run trucks in the field, which cuts down on compaction. Mike feels their soil conditions today are better than they've ever been.

Although their beets are close to the Grand River, they don't need irrigation like western states' growers to grow a good crop of beets. While they have riparian Michigan water rights and do use limited irrigation, they are considered dry land farmers. "Many times we have to get rid of excess water with the use of tile drainage.

"To get healthy soil you don't work fields when they are wet. We use cover crops extensively and also wheat gets clover frost seeded in the spring for plow down," McCormack stated.

"It takes more intensive management to grow beets, which makes you a better all-around farmer. We're in the fields scouting almost daily, and that practice benefits the overall operation," he added.

While McCormack says sugar prices are good right now, times won't always be this "sweet." He knows the farm must remain diversified.

Mike is an example of a beet grower who has stepped up to the plate to help his family and Michigan Sugar Company stay strong and independent into the 21st century. n