Wyoming Sugar Industry Paints Contrasting Pictures

Published online: Mar 22, 2019 News Carrie Haderlie
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Anyone who has driven through the town of Worland knows that the sugarbeet is the mainstay crop in north-central Wyoming. Depending on wind direction, storage conditions and weather, the root vegetable produces a distinct odor.

Smell notwithstanding, the sugarbeet industry is an economic driver in Wyoming, and the sugar produced here is market ready, as pure as the sugar in your morning coffee.

Crops are planted in late March and early April and harvested in September and October. According to the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, most sugarbeets are processed at a plant close to the field, as the 2- to 5-pound root crop is a perishable vegetable.

“Wyoming Sugar has a huge impact on the local economy,” said Mike Greear, president and CEO of Wyoming Sugar Company, owned by growers from Washakie, Big Horn and Fremont counties. “We provide 200 union jobs during harvest, 145 during campaign and around 80 year-round. That does not include all the added farm jobs and support needed for the specialized equipment need to grow sugar beets.”

On Sept. 1, Wyoming Sugar converted to a cooperative, worker-owned business. This preceded a great fall crop, which yielded 33.5 tons per acre with a 19.1 percent sugar content.

“Neither was a record, but combined, they made the best crop ever,” Greear said.

Wyoming Sugar finished its sugarbeet processing campaign in February.

“We produced 1,09 million hundredweight, which is the most sugar we have produced since the early 2000s,” Greear said. “We made this sugar on 12,000 acres of beets, compared to the 20,000 acres that were needed the last time we broke 1 million hundredweight. It is a tribute to our growers and the use of technology in agriculture.”

Over Christmas, Wyoming Sugar branched out of its normal marketing campaign and tried offering 4-pound bags to customers at the Worland Blair’s Supermarket. It also took a limited quantity of its branded product to Cheyenne during the 2019 Legislature’s general session.

“We have always sold in bulk by railcar, and the smallest package we’ve done has been our 50-pound packages,” Greear said. “This year, with a new marketer, we made arrangements to get a truckload of 4-pound bags with our own Wyoming Sugar logo for consumers.”

This was motivated, in part, by a recent trend toward buying local.

“It is expensive to do, but the response that I got makes me think that we may look at a 4-pound packaging line to distribute our sugar if we can find retailers to take it here in Wyoming,” Greear said. “There does seem to be a strong interest from people in wanting to buy Wyoming sugar.”

The viability of the company hinges on stable, reasonable prices, Greear said.

“For this to occur, we need protection from subsidized sugar being imported from other countries. Our U.S. beet growers are the most efficient in the world, but we cannot compete against the treasuries of foreign countries,” he said. “The U.S. sugar program contained in the new farm bill is a step in the right direction.”

Two years ago, north-central Wyoming crops were devastated by horrific rains and cold weather, which caused processing issues. Wyoming Sugar growers also received $5.6 million in economic disaster loans from the Wyoming Business Council because of the crop damage in 2017.

But since then, things have only gotten better.

“We had difficult times within the factory, and we had a poor processing year two years ago. And that, coupled with low sugar prices, was really tough on us,” Greear said. “The prices have stabilized, and as a result of those prices stabilizing, our market is better. We have a better marketer, and we have a good processing year.

“We are coming out of two bad years, but this year the crop is up. We still need to keep our nose to the grindstone and keep at it, but things are looking up,” Greear said.

It’s a different story for the other sugarbeet producer in Wyoming: 92 people were laid off at the Western Sugar Cooperative beet processing facility in Torrington in January. Western Sugar President and CEO Rodney Perry told the Torrington Telegram in November that the 2018-19 sugar processing campaign would be the last, after 96 years in operation.

Over the last few years, the company invested in its facilities in Scottsbluff, Neb., and Fort Morgan, Colo. – a decision that resulted in the mass layoff and the end of the sugar line in Torrington.

“We’ve expanded our production capacity to be more efficient for the cooperative in Nebraska,” said Jerry Darnell, vice president of agriculture for the southern region of Western Sugar. “We have invested in that to be more efficient, and had to close the Torrington facility.”

Western Sugar’s Lovell factory will continue operating, he said.

“At our Lovell region, we had a great, fantastic year,” Darnell said. “Sugarbeets are like any farming commodity–we have rain and cold, and we need Mother Nature to cooperate.”

Darnell said that Western Sugar will continue to store and package sugar at the Torrington facility, but beets raised in the southeast Wyoming area will be processed in Scottsbluff.

Wyoming Sugar, by contrast, is solely located in Wyoming.

“The money that we receive for our sugar, except for what we pay the railroad, all of that money goes back to our Wyoming economy,” Greear said. “It goes to our employees, it goes to our growers. Because we are a co-op, our profit goes to our growers.

“There is no out-of-state corporation taking the profits away. All of it goes right back into our community,” he said.

Wyoming Sugar growers will be planting by Mother’s Day, he said. Harvest and slicing will begin in September, and the processing campaign will run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, through the winter of 2019-20.