Bullish about the Future

Colorado grower says rough years ahead can be overcome

Published in the February 2014 Issue Published online: Feb 14, 2014 Allen Thayer
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While it’s all too easy to fixate on short-term results, Paul Schlagel knows it’s best to instead focus on the long view.

That philosophy is especially fitting for today’s sugarbeet industry as some rough years may lie ahead. After growers enjoyed a phenomenally profitable crop in 2012, they took minimal profits or losses in 2013. What happens this year and beyond will have as much to do with the Mexican sugar that has overwhelmed the U.S. market as any other factor.

Yet Schlagel, 59, who owns Paul Schlagel Farms on the Front Range in Colorado, is undeterred as he begins planning his family’s 104th sugarbeet crop on five properties. He resides five miles east of Longmont, Colo., with his wife, Vicki, their son, Scott, 27, and his parents, Harry, 90, and Betty. Scott is not quite a partner but is working in that direction.

“We actually live on the family farm,” Paul said. “We built the house 19 years ago and live on the farm that my dad purchased in the early 1960s. He’s not actively involved in the farm anymore, but he has plenty of advice. Most of the time, it’s pretty good advice.”

Schlagel Farms is based in Weld County with some acreage in Boulder County as well. Total acreage is 1,500 with 200 acres growing sugarbeets for the Western Sugar Cooperative factory in Fort Morgan, Colo. Other crops include barley for the Coors Brewing Company in Golden, Colo., corn and alfalfa.

“I farm with my brother, Bruce,” Paul said. “We have our own separate operations, but we run the combines together and harvest together.

“It’s more than a crop,” he said. “It’s in our blood. We’re going to be here and make it work long term. I want my son to be able to do this for a long time.”

 

Why Farming?

Paul initially tried other vocations.

“When I got out of school I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do and tried different things,” he said. “I worked as a machinist for a while and I worked as a truck driver for a while. Things didn’t work out and I came back. You can always go back to the farm if nothing else is available.”

He grew up on his father’s farm and managed it for more than 35 years.

“In 1977, I got married and got my first farm east of Longmont,” Paul said. “In 1994, we built our house and moved back to the home farm. We still lease that farm we had in 1977.

“If I had to do it over, I’d probably do the same thing,” he said.

Paul also is working closer now with Vicki. After spending some 30 years in the banking industry, she recently retired and became more involved in the operation.

 

Rain and More Rain

Paul’s average sugarbeet yield last year was 33.5 tons per acre, higher than the year before. Yet the sugar content was below average at 15.5, down from 17. Beet prices fell from about $70 to about half that amount.

“A lot of it was due to the very wet September we had,” Paul said. “Some people were calling it a 100-year flood. Some were calling it a 500-year flood. We had very wet conditions all through harvest. We had zero early harvest because that was impossible.”

The 2013 Colorado floods were a natural disaster. During the week starting Sept. 9, 2013, a slow-moving cold front stalled over Colorado, clashing with warm humid monsoonal air from the south. This resulted in heavy rain and catastrophic flooding along Colorado’s Front Range from Colorado Springs north to Fort Collins. The situation intensified on Sept. 11 and 12. Boulder County was worst hit, with 9.08 inches recorded Sept. 12 and up to 17 inches of rain recorded by Sept. 15, which is comparable to Boulder County’s average annual precipitation of 20.7 inches.

“We did not have any actual flooding at our place,” Paul said. Longmont is located about 16 miles northeast of Boulder.

Harvest finally began Oct. 9 and ended Oct. 29. Beets were left in the field in three or four places due to the conditions.

“Where we’re located we had to use alternate routes to our piling station,” Paul said. “In fact the roads are still not completely repaired.

“Those roads weren’t used to handling that amount of traffic. You’re not used to traffic jams on rural roads. We added two miles to the 10-mile trip, and it took probably twice as long as normal.”

 

Setting up Sprinklers

In the last three years, Paul has bought three Reinke sprinklers to get his entire home farm under pivots.

“I like the way their corner systems work better,” he said. “They are GPS guided, and they are easier to change the pattern of the swing arm.”

Flood irrigation has been a mainstay on the Front Range for more than 100 years because the way ditches are cut through the landscape. More than 90 percent of Paul’s land remains flood-irrigated. Yet Paul and other growers are installing sprinklers where practical to ensure crops are evenly irrigated.

“It’s a challenge to get rid of ditches with underground irrigation pipe,” Paul said.

Another concern is municipalities taking more water out of the agriculture sector.

“That’s a huge issue for us on the Front Range,” Paul said. “We have to keep our crops irrigated. That’s one of the reasons we’re going to sprinklers. We can also control fertilization better.”

Diseases have not been a problem on the Front Range.

“We have some nematode issues here, but that’s really the one pest we have to deal with,” Paul said. “This is a prime sugarbeet growing area and has been for a long time. Our disease issues aren’t huge. We’re fortunate to be able to say that. I think our high altitude has something to do with that.”

 

Roundup to the Rescue

Since the introduction of Roundup Ready sugarbeets in 2008, weeds are no longer an issue.

Paul credits Roundup and better seeds for the nearly 50 percent increase in beet yields since its introduction.

“We are still very careful with how we use Roundup,” he said. “We don’t depend on Roundup in our corn. When we spray our sugarbeets with herbicides we use the full amount.”

Paul is an advocate for genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

“What an advantage it would be for all sorts of crops,” he said. “Where are some of these GMOs going to be in 10 years?”

Not everyone backs GMOs. Environmental and food safety groups criticize Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugarbeets, citing threats to human health and the possibility of cross-pollination with non-GMO plants. Yet the USDA officially approved it for use in 2010.

In response to critics in Boulder County, Paul helped form the Farmers Alliance for Integrated Resources (FAIR) in 2010. Members meet about every other month to promote GMO benefits.

FAIR’s mission statement promotes diverse and sustainable agricultural practices within Boulder County that reflect the production of local food and feed using best farming practices, integrated pest management, conservation of water and soil resources, responsible pesticide use and management, and respecting the principles of coexistence relative to all approved farming methods.

“We are striving for coexistence,” Paul said. “GMO food is getting a bad name nationally. That’s a huge issue for us going forward. Growers need to be involved in organizations that will address these issues.”

Paul is a board member of the Colorado Sugarbeet Growers Association. He also is a board member of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association and is vice chair of the biotech committee.

Scott is currently taking part in the two-year Colorado Ag Leadership Program. Members toured individual farms in China and visited the Great Wall during a 10-day trip in December.

 

Looking Ahead

Technology keeps bringing change. Paul now has three GPS-guided tractors and a GPS self-propelled sprayer.

“No one wants to drive in a non-GPS tractor now,” Paul said. While they are fun to drive, they are also economical. Fuel costs go down and over-spraying is prevented.

With the current financial situation, being economical is more important than ever.

“We’ll probably tighten our belts,” Paul said. “Western Sugar Cooperative is in good financial shape. We had four or five years of good prices. I don’t think we went crazy spending money. We’re ready to weather a few bad years.

“With the co-ops now owning the processing plants, there’s a good future in sugarbeets,” he said. “It’s a good way to live your life.”