WORDEN, Mont.- The Karst family dropped everything and fired up their beet digger Sept. 22 after Western Sugar sounded the alarm about rain.
For the last five days, the sugar beet cooperative has been trying to harvest enough beets to get its Billings refinery operating, but intermittent rainfall has made fields too soft for machinery. After several dry days and more rain forecasted, farmers were being told to get busy.
"It's still pretty moist," said Dale Karst. The trundling tires of is beet stripper shed fist-sized clumps of tacky earth as Karst rolled along severing greens from roots. "There are a few places that are really wet."
Western has been trying to jump-start the harvest since Friday, with some farmers scheduled to start weeks ahead of everyone else so the refinery would be ready for the October onslaught of beets piled high from Forsyth to Fromberg.
The Karsts were slated to start Sept. 30, but moved up their harvest an entire week to keep the refinery in beets, should weather shut things down.
Nearly three inches of rain has fallen in the Billings area in September-roughly two inches more than the historical average, according to the National Weather Service. Wednesday and Thursday, the chance of rain is 80 percent. It wouldn't take much rain to make beet fields unworkable, Karst said.
The timing of the early harvest has to be just right. September is a risky month for harvesting beets, which are stored outside in piles. If the piles warm too much in the September sun, the beets spoil. Still, the refinery needs enough beets to stay operational.
The timing is a little easier this year because the early sugar beet harvest is starting later than usual, which means there aren't as many really hot days to worry about. On Monday, roughly 2 percent of Montana's sugar beets were out of the ground, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service. Nearly 10 percent had been harvested for the same time a year ago.
One reason for the late start is that Montana farmers have fewer beets to harvest. Sugar production is a $70 million-a-year industry in Montana. Over the next month and a half, farmers will harvest 42,900 acres, but that's 2,900 fewer acres of sugar beets than they harvested last year, according to NASS. Roughly 88,000 fewer tons of beets are expected to cross Montana scales than did in 2012.
Sugar prices have dropped to levels not seen since the 1980s because of oversupply, so producers cut back plantings this year to stem the glut. USDA economists recently forecasted that the glut will continue into 2014, meaning acres will have to be reduced again.
The challenges in the Karst's field Monday morning were more rooted in the ground. Dale's father, Gary Karst, started down another row with the beet digger as Dale's mom, Linda, rumbled onto the frontage road in a farm truck weighed down with beets. Eyeing the rows of beets he'd just topped, Dale wasn't pleased with the size.
As unusually wet as September has been, the month of April was unusually dry when Dale Karst seeded this field. Many of the beet seeds sprouted and then died as rain failed to materialize until late May. The Karsts replanted and ended up with beets that were too close together in some rows, which resulted in small beets, some sized small enough to fall out of the digger.
Dale Karst pressed on, nothing to do but keep the tractor running.