The future is always perilous to predict. But to paraphrase Aristotle, we need a vision toward which to aim as an archer needs a target at which to guide his arrow.
The landscape might look quite different in 2025. Bob Harveson, extension plant pathologist at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, foresees a wave of consolidation. Large farms might gobble up their small neighbors so that we have larger but fewer farms.
This seems logical if as David Berg, American Crystal Sugar president, predicts total acreage to sugarbeets declines by 2025.
“The primary reason is that genetic improvements will continue to push per acre yields higher,” Berg said. “Since factory processing capacity and campaign lengths are already constraining factors at nearly all U.S. processing companies, acres must decline to balance the impact of better producing varieties.”
Owen Wagner, an agricultural economist at LMC International, sees the same phenomenon. He predicts that by 2025 U.S. beet acreage will fall slightly from 1.2 million to 1.18 million acres. He thinks sugar consumption will increase by then, but increases in yield per acre will offset any rise in consumption—making it possible to satisfy demand with fewer acres.
Jeff Schweitzer, public relations manager at American Crystal Sugar, notes that sugar is an inelastic commodity, but even if per person consumption holds steady, an increase in U.S. population over the years should increase aggregate demand.
Schweitzer, Nick Sinner, executive director of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, and Dan Corn, a sugarbeet farmer in Oregon, predict that acreage will hold steady over the years. This prediction is not far from Wagner’s projection of a slight decline. Either scenario appears possible.
Steven Poindexter, extension sugarbeet agent at Michigan State University, agrees to the extent that he foresees no acreage increase.
As large a role as biotechnology plays in the lives of sugarbeet growers, Poindexter expects an increase in its importance by 2025. He predicts that sugarbeet growers will be able to plant new genetically engineered varieties resistant to leaf spot and other diseases, insects and drought. These levels of resistance will aid the grower in reducing reliance on chemicals.
The biotechnology problem that most concerns Paul Horny, farm manager of the Saginaw Valley Research and Extension Center at Michigan State University, however, is the rise of herbicide resistant weeds. Given past and current trends, Horny expects that growers will adopt new sugarbeet varieties as they become available in coming years.
In addition to biotech, Wagner expects technology to be increasingly important by 2025, with “more automation and larger equipment.”
Sinner agrees. New technologies like GPS and auto steer will drive the trend toward more technology and greater efficiency by 2025. He believes that new technologies will decrease farm inputs, leaving growers with more money in their pockets.
Corn agrees, predicting that sugarbeet growers will become more efficient in the use of electricity, water and chemicals, including fertilizers.
Harveson projects that new technology will lessen labor inputs, lead to fewer trips through the field at planting and harvest, and the adoption of new harvesters that top plants and dig the root in a single operation. Like Poindexter and Horny, Harveson expects biotech companies to release varieties with better disease, insect and herbicide resistance.
“We are on the cusp of new advancements in breeding technology that should permit growers to use fewer chemicals and less volume per acre in the future,” Berg said. “Many people inside and outside the United States strongly resist the use of genetic techniques to improve agriculture. But the reality of increasing populations will make the use of genetically engineered varieties more—not less—prevalent in coming years.”
The use of new technologies and sugarbeet varieties should enhance profitability by 2025. Horny notes simply that sugarbeets have been “the mortgage lifter.” Sugarbeets must continue to be profitable to attract growers in the future.
“Sugarbeets are too much work not to be profitable,” said Horny. If profit margins decline, growers will find another crop or another line of work.
Poindexter is less sure. From his vantage point production costs might increase by 2025, cutting into profits. Moreover competition may intensify, putting downward pressure on sugar prices.
Sinner worries about the trend toward free trade and globalism, noting that some 41 sugarcane-producing countries have access to U.S. markets, a number that is likely to increase by 2025.
“It’s difficult to compete against third world cane sugar,” Sinner said.
Wagner puts the matter succinctly: “Any increase in market access to other countries would likely be filled by cane sugar.”
If many of these predictions hold true, the future of sugarbeet culture in the United States will depend on biotech and new technology. The future may be fraught with competition, leaving profitability at issue. Belt tightening may be in order.