Each growing season unfolds its own way—sometimes to the detriment of the grower.
Such was the case last year for Mark Arnold, 49, of Holloway, Minn., who is the 2014 Sugar Producer Grower of the Year.
“Along with a short growing season, we had a short harvest window,” Mark said. “Put them together and that made it a little challenging. But that’s farming. When the beet lifters were ready in October, we started getting wet.”
Inclement moisture caused a nine-day harvesting delay and shutdown deliveries to the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative Factory in Renville, about 65 miles away from Mark’s fields.
“We didn’t get all of our beets delivered because of it,” he said. “In our co-op, there were a percentage of beets left in the field. Temperatures were too cold. It ruined some of our beets. They were no good for long-term storage.”
Mark owns his own farm and shares machinery and labor with his brother, Dan, on about 3,400 acres. About 900 acres are dedicated to beets. Rotation crops include corn, soybeans, edible beans and occasionally wheat. Beet tonnage hit the mid-20s, with sugar content upwards of 16 percent.
“It’s an average crop,” Mark said. “Last year we had a somewhat higher tonnage. Yet yields had been trending upward due to better agronomic practices and genetics.”
Rhizoctonia created a bit of a hurdle last season.
“We’re constantly trying to select seed varieties to combat that,” Mark said. “Genetic resistance is the number one tool.”
Roundup Ready beet seed continues to be used prevalently by everyone in the co-op.
“It’s the biggest advancement I can remember in my sugarbeet growing career,” Mark said.
For harvest Mark uses an Amity defoliator and a 12-row Art’s Way harvester. He trades in for newer models about every five to six years.
“You need reliability when harvest comes around with the short windows,” he said.
Mark is philosophical about his profession. Sugar prices are cyclical, and no one knows what the next growing season will bring.
“But we are in it for the long haul,” Mark said of sugar growers as a whole. “We’ve got to take the lows along with the highs. Beets are probably more of a commitment than a lot of other commodities.”
Lower prices this season and excess sugar due to imports concern all growers.
“However in our situation, being owners of the processing facilities, you’ve got a pretty big commitment that you cannot walk away from. If you want to be there in the future, you have to stick with it. That’s the nature of this business. It’s what you need to do, because it will turn the other way.”
Mark’s parents, Vernon and Joan, took to farming. They raised beets for American Crystal. When that company’s processing plant closed in Chaska, Minn., in 1971, a group of growers formed the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative.
“They put everything they had on the line to get it going, because it was a crop they enjoyed raising. It was a good rotation crop for them. And there was no other place to go with sugarbeets at that point. They had to build their own facility, and that’s what they did.”
The Renville factory opened in 1975. Since the formation of the Southern Minnesota co-op in 1972, second- and third-generation growers are now shareholders.
“I’ve been a farmer since I was knee high, because I rode in a tractor with my mother,” Mark said. “That’s all I dwelled on. I enjoyed farming. When I became old enough I started renting some land and bought beet shares.”
Joan tragically died in an auto accident last May. Her death visibly showed the ties that unite beet growers.
“She was very enlightening in the sugarbeet business,” Mark said. “She probably topped more beets than anyone in our co-op. That was her job—running the sugarbeet topper for 30 years.”
Her legacy is not forgotten.
“This industry is so darn special,” Mark said. “We had flowers from every beet industry there is at mother’s funeral and wake. It was overwhelming in support. It’s amazing how much bonding there is throughout the sugar industry. It’s a true feeling having just gone through this experience. It’s incredible to be part of this industry for that reason.”
Vernon has recovered from his injuries suffered in the same accident.
“He’s doing pretty well,” Mark said. “It took him quite awhile to recover. He’s got a big hole in his life too.”
Mark’s tenure as co-op board chairman ended in December when he completed his fourth and final three-year term.
“I need to thank the partners I had,” Mark said. “It’s a big commitment. My wife and children all understood when I was gone for meetings. I thank them for that.”
Mark and his wife, Shelly, have three daughters, Amber, Amanda (Mandi) and Alyssa. Amber is an accountant in Willmar, Minn. Mandi is a registered nurse in Benson, Minn. She and her husband, Brandon Klein, expected their first child in December. Alyssa lives in Holloway with her husband, Tronn Tosel, and daughter, Kadence Joan Tosel, six months, who was born 12 hours after Joan’s funeral. Alyssa is a fourth-grade school teacher in Appleton, Minn. Son-in-laws, Brandon and Tronn both help Mark during harvest.
Board meetings are scheduled around planting and harvest seasons.
“We do most of it in the winter months,” Mark said. “We make sure everybody is in support of what we’re doing by the time the meetings are over. The board is involved in all facets of the industry.”
Mark looks forward to the free time ahead of now after 12 years of service.
“Faith, family, farming and flying are my passions,” Mark said. “I’ve been flying airplanes before I got married. I’ll get back to some of the things I’ve sacrificed. I hope to get back to more flying and traveling for pleasure.”
He serves as a flight instructor, belongs to a flying club and enjoys piloting around the local area.
“You get to see the rewards every fall when the crop matures, and you harvest it,” Mark said. “Sometimes it lets you down. A lot of times it lifts you up, and it’s better than you thought it would be.
“A lot of good people are in the field of agriculture. I can’t see that I’d be happier anyplace else.”