Search under way for site of first industrial sugarbeet plant

Published online: Mar 05, 2014
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VALLEY CITY, N.D.—Tuesday, Jan. 28, marked the beginning of a five-city tour for the steering committee of BeetsAll Biofuel in their search for a site for the first industrial beet plant site.

The committee’s first stop was in Valley City. Later in the week stops were planned for Jamestown, Carrington, Langdon and Cando, since these are communities BeetsAll Biofuel feels have the best chance of landing the first processing facility.

The reason for these visits was two-fold, according to Lloyd Anderson, a partner in the Green Vision Group. The first was to provide information to growers on the various aspects of raising industrial beets, and the second was to begin to gauge interest growers in a certain area will have to sign production contracts for that first plant.

Rumblings have been going on since late 2007 about the possibility of using sugarbeets for ethanol production. The BeetsAll Biofuel entity is the result of a formal partnership between the Green Vision Group and Heartland Renewable Energy with a key research element provided by North Dakota State University.

Several years later, efforts and research have brought the company to a point where they are ready to construct the first processing facility. During that time, the term “energy beet” has been replaced by “industrial beet,” according to Anderson, since it’s been determined that the non-food sugarbeet can also be successfully converted into a wide range of products besides ethanol, like plastics, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, nutriceuticals and other high-value chemicals.

“Sugar is really what we are talking about – sugar has a big opportunity,” Anderson told a group of about 40 growers. “We can get two times the amount of ethanol off an acre of sugarbeets than we can off an acre of corn. And with a beet, we can go directly from sugar into ethanol production, while with corn we first have to convert the starch into sugar.”

One of the major considerations in determining the first plants is the seedstock supply, he said. Other factors that will be taken into consideration include-transportation, both inbound and outbound, utilities such as water, electricity and natural gas, co-location opportunities, and a suitable site, among other things.

“I think it’s fair to say that the site that can put the growers together first is probably where the first site will be built, said David Ripplinger, an assistant professor in the NDSU Agribusiness and Applied Economics department, who has been working on the BeetsAll Biofuel project.

The first plant built would be a 20-million gallon a year facility that would require about 30,000 acres of beets for feedstock grown within a 20-mile radius of the plant. The plans now call for this first plant to be running in either 2016 or 2017 and growers contracted to supply those beets would need to start planning their crop rotation this year.

Several of the herbicides used in the production of small grains, corn and soybeans have a long rotation carryover in regards to beets and if those carryover periods are cut short, growers will see a drastic reduction in yields.

For instance, ALS herbicides or those chemicals with a formulation similar to Pursuit have a 40-month rotational restriction before beets can be planted, according to Ripplinger, and other herbicides have up to a 24-month carryover.

“This is a huge issue and one of the reasons we are here,” he said. “If the plan is to have a plant that will accept beets in 2016 or 2017, if you plant that crop, you want to make sure you don’t have any herbicide carryover or you are going to lose money. Your yields might fall by half or you might not even get a crop.”

Grower benefits – Growers adding industrial beets to their crop rotation can expect to see a higher net return per acre than from companion crops in the rotation. They can be grown in a variety of soil types and conditions and are tolerant to both drought and saline soils.

The deep tap roots of the beets improve soil health and make use of soil moisture and plant nutrients in the lower levels of the soil profile. Beets can be grown under no till management systems and in rocky soils.

Efforts are also underway to develop a federal crop insurance program for industrial beets, since most growers would probably shy away from planting the crop if it wasn’t insurable.

“Beets can be grown very successfully outside the Red River Valley and I say that for a couple of reasons,” Ripplinger said. “Results from field trials the last five years have ended up with tonnage that would make most growers in the Red River Valley pretty envious.

“In addition, the sugar yield has been good as well. With sugar content in the 16 to 18 percent range you are pretty happy and in some years our trials have been higher than that.”

He noted that the climate in North Dakota is nearly ideal for the production of sugar, in terms of both yield and quality.

A four-year crop rotation is being suggested not only because of some of the herbicide carryover restrictions, but also it offers enough time to break the disease cycle. Since beets do poorly following a soybean crop, the recommendation would be a corn-soybean-small grain and beet rotation, with the beets following either a wheat or barley crop.

As far as equipment needs, most growers already have the equipment needed to plant the beet crop, but harvesting does require special equipment, including toppers and beet lifters. This need could be handled by custom operators, or neighbors going together to purchase the equipment instead of individual ownership.

It was also mentioned that due to good economic times, sugarbeet growers have updated their harvesting equipment and there are some reasonably priced used units on many implement lots.

Processing facilities – The plan now calls for eventually as many as 16 20-million gallon plants being built across the state. Each plant will require about 23 employees for operation and overall, it’s estimated the project will result in $250 million more farm production income and $600 million in more processing money flowing through the state on an annual basis, plus another $248 million in production and processing net income reinvested in the state annually.

And this plan would offer investment opportunities for growers and citizens of the state.

“We would really like to see local people invest so the benefits can be retained in North Dakota,” Anderson said.

Those wanting more information can go to the BeetsAll Biofuel website at Once there a person can sign up on the contact page and receive ongoing updates about the project and receive notification about future meetings.

The next step in the process is to get a group of farmers in one of the five focus areas to commit to supply the feedstock for the initial plant. As both Anderson and Ripplinger said, “Growers need to be ready. Growers are critical. Without growers there is no plant.”