California growers stay competitive

Simplicity in a high-tech world

Published in the February 2013 Issue Published online: Feb 05, 2013 Allen Thayer
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Sugarbeet growers are alive and well in California.

"We're doing a good job growing beets down here," said Larry Fleming, 63, who owns Spruce Farms with his brother, Robert, and brother-in-law, Roy Motter, in Brawley, Calif., along the border with Mexico. His nephew, Andrew, also grows beets.

"This area just happens to be a great beet growing area," Fleming said. He served on the local sugarbeet growers board for about 15 years and sits on the seed committee now. He served on the state Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service for eight years, including five as chairman.

"We're as advanced as anyone," Fleming said. "We're a combination of high tech and simplicity in that regard. Siphons and water going down a furrow - it looks pretty simple."

But there's more to growing beets than that.

Growers in the Imperial Valley are still working the soil due in part to the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative, which in 2007 bought the Spreckels Sugar Company in Brawley. It's the last sugarbeet factory in California.

"I'm vitally concerned that the factory stays competitive, because if it doesn't we're out of business," Fleming said. "It has come close to closing down a couple times in the past. Right now it's in great shape. I credit Southern Minnesota Co-op for that. They bought the factory from Imperial Sugar and put the money into it."

Fleming represents the third generation in farming on both sides of his family.

"My father was born here in 1920, and my mother was born here in 1925," he said. "Both my grandparents were here. My wife's family has been here since the early 1950s.

"Both of my parents' families farmed down here starting in the teens," Fleming said. "We've been here 100 years."

And the Flemings show no signs of leaving.

"My brother, brother-in-law and I started farming with my father 40 years ago," said Fleming, who began farming after graduating from Cal State Fullerton with a business degree. His father, Jack, 92, has since retired, leaving a three-way partnership. The family grows 500 acres of beets on its 2,500-acre spread. Other crops include alfalfa, romaine and iceberg lettuce, market onions, hay and wheat. Their farm is on the north end of the valley.

"We get 100 percent of our water from the Colorado River," Fleming said. Imperial Valley owns the third-oldest filing on the river.

"We have a very secure water right priority," he said. "Our problems are as much political as they are whether the rain is going to fall or not. There's a lot of pressure on us for our water. That gets into a whole topic you could spend weeks on."

Being 110 feet below sea level presents a different set of circumstances for Fleming's farm.

"Our whole irrigation system is based on gravity from the Colorado River," he said. "There are very few pumps in the valley, and it all flows toward the salt sea which is an old sea bed. We don't rely on rain at all down here."

"Sugarbeets grown by Spruce Farms in Brawley, Calif., are irrigated by water delivered through delivery gates and canal. Siphon tubes divert water to each individual furrow.

For good reason - the valley averages only 3- to 4-inches of rain per year.

Growers here also use few pivots.

"Every field down here is level," Fleming said. "It's all flat. Virtually everything down here can be furrow-or flood-irrigated. We use a lot of sprinklers, especially in our produce crops. But mainly it's just furrow and flat irrigation." Half a million acres are under irrigation in the valley.

"It's a huge irrigation district, laid out into grids," Fleming said. "Every field has a delivery and a drainage ditch."

Irrigated water for Fleming's beets arrives through delivery gates and canal owned by the Imperial Irrigation District and the family's privately owned cement ditches.

Water collects in ponds through slide gates. Siphon tubes are then used to divert water to each individual furrow.

Fleming said the fields are re-leveled by laser every seven to eight years.

"We have to make sure we get a lot of water movement or our salts build up," he said. Water from the Colorado River has up to 700 to 900 parts per million of salt.

"We have a drainage grid 5- to 6-feet deep that leaches the salt out," Fleming said. "Its precision planted. There is a lot of high tech. You don't see it when you watch a bunch of siphon tubes."

Crop rotation is important down here for disease and weed control, he said. Planting takes place around Sept. 5-10 and watering on Sept. 18.

"We put the last of our seed water on around the 15th of October," he said. "We have about a month where we plant and water. Harvest starts the first of April. We harvest all summer. Our growing period is from mid-September clear up through July. We have a long crop. It's not profitable to start before April 1 or go beyond August."

The haul to the beet pile for the Flemings ranges from nine to 24 miles. The valley itself is home to 25,000 acres of beets.

"That pretty well fits the season and their capacity at Spreckels," Fleming said. "The yield keeps going up. Over the last five years, the valley averages 42- to 43-tons with about 17 percent sugar content. We get variations on that depending on weather, disease like Rhizomania - that kind of thing."

The Flemings planted 30 acres of Roundup Ready beets commercially for the first time this year in a coded trial using Holly and Beta seeds. Growers had worried about wild beets mixing with Roundup Ready.

"That proved not to be the case," Fleming said. Data will be distributed to the seed committee and then to the rest of the growers.

"There's enough of a demand for Roundup Ready beets to where I think we're going to transition completely within a couple years," Fleming said.

He's bullish about the future of sugar.

"There's always going to be a sugar industry in the United States, mostly split between cane and beets roughly like it is now because if you eliminate the amount of sugar produced in the U.S. from the world supply prices would skyrocket.

"I don't see how we can possibly get higher yields in terms of production, but we said that 20 years ago when we were getting 30 tons of beet instead of 45."

For that reason, growers must continue to embrace technology.

"Everything is about efficiency and unit cost," Fleming said. "The way we survive is keeping our unit cost competitive with other areas of the world and competitive within the U.S. Areas that have gone out of production were the areas where it cost more to grow.

"Unit cost is the name of the game," Fleming said. "That's what it's all about. We have much higher yields than they do in the northern tier, but their costs are lower. The unit costs are identical. This area has been very competitive in that regard. That's why we're still in business." 

"Larry Fleming, co-owner of Spruce Farms, primes an irrigation siphon.