Building America

The American dream lives on in Colorado’s sugarbeet fields

Published online: Jan 24, 2019 Grower of the Month Phillip Hayes, ASA
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This article appears in the January 2019 issue of Sugar Producer.

A handshake deal in a farm field made the American dream real for Mario Herrera. Chad Musick’s grandfather helped him take over the family operation and get started as a young farmer. Jilann Schlagel’s kitchen table is covered with family photos of farmers stretching back to Germany.

Family, heritage and pride run deep in Colorado’s sugarbeet fields. It’s been nearly a year since the American Sugar Alliance set out to document the lives of sugarbeet and sugarcane family farms across the nation.

We started in a field on the banks of the Rio Grande within sight of Mexico and traveled to eastern Michigan along the Canadian border. We’ve interviewed factory workers in Baltimore and New York and beet growers in California. We’ve watched the snow fall outside a mill in Nebraska as farmers hoped for better prices. We’ve sweated in Florida’s harvest heat alongside growers and witnessed Louisiana’s sugar heritage up close.

And we just ended our travels for 2018 in eastern Colorado, where the American dream is alive and well.


Handshake Promise

Mario Herrera today farms the fields that surround the house where he was born. But those fields were not handed down by his biological father. He got them on a handshake, without a penny in his pocket, from a man he came to love as a father.

Herrera’s father came from Mexico in the 1950s looking for work. He made his way to the eastern Colorado farm of John Nelson, where he found not only a job for 30 years but also a home and a path to becoming an American citizen. Mario and his brothers spent their childhood hoeing the sugarbeet rows by hand, singing along to the radio and eating homemade tortillas for lunch.

“It was grueling, but it taught us a lot of self-respect and what work is really about and that there are challenges that you can overcome,” he says.

It also fostered a dream in young Herrera.

“My whole dream, as a kid, was always to farm,” he says. “And own my farm.”

Years later, after his father had retired, Herrera realized that dream with a handshake deal in a farm field. Nelson was ready to step back and enjoy his retirement. It was Herrera—the boy he had watched grow into a man in his sugarbeet fields—he wanted to see running the family farm.

“I went to talk to him about buying the farm, and I didn’t know how I was going to ever really get into it because I didn’t have a penny in my pocket,” Herrera says.

Nelson wasn’t concerned about the money.

“Mario,” Herrera recalls Nelson saying that day, “I know your family and how dedicated you are. I’m going to give you that opportunity. I just think you are the right man for it.”

Herrera farms those same fields today, as an owner.

“I really believe in sugarbeets because they are the one crop that will always pull the farm out,” Herrera says. “It always seems to be the crop that will withstand that hailstorm and provide some kind of an income.”


From the Ground Up

Not far from Herrera’s farm, Jilann Schlagal recounts a different American story. Her husband’s family came from Germany to grow beets and build the mills as the U.S. sugar industry started to take off. She sits around the kitchen table today and looks at faded black-and-white photos of her family. Schalegal is not only a farmer but a historian and writer. She’s documented her family’s history and is proud of the sacrifices they made to build a community in Colorado.

It’s a heritage she’s passed down to her own children.

“We made sure that our kids hoed those fields a few times to get the weeds out because we wanted them to know what Grandma Schlagel and Grandpa Schlagel went through,” she says.

Sugarbeets, Schlagel says, are critical to the culture of rural communities, and they represent a heritage she hopes will continue.

“It’s important to me that this community continues with sugarbeet growing,” she says. “We need all the sugar we can get to feed America. It’s where our food comes from. It’s farmers.”


It Ain’t Easy

Grower Chad Musick’s story begins with his grandfather. His father was a truck driver and didn’t farm full time, but the young Musick spent his childhood on his grandfather’s farm and fell in love with the life. Getting started in farming is becoming harder and harder for young growers, and Musick says he was blessed to have his grandfather’s help in taking over the family operation.

Today, he grows sugarbeets and other crops on the family farm. He partners with his wife’s family farm on the beets. Even with that help, he’s felt economic pressure as prices dropped in 2012. They have only just started to recover. 

“It’s really scary,” he says. “It’s kind of out of your hands. You grow. You put all the money out. Your inputs are still the same.”

Even so, Musick plans to stay in sugarbeets.

“We are going to stick with them for as long as we can,” he says. “Back in Washington, I just hope they don’t take the sugar program out. It would be detrimental. I don’t think the sugarbeet industry would be able to make it.”


True Stories

Colorado, where the children of immigrants built their own America in the farm fields, was a great place for us to end our series for the year. We’ll be back on the road in 2019 to continue telling the story of sugar growers. But here, in Colorado, the American story of sugar farming comes into sharp focus.

American growers are the best in the world. They are the most efficient and produce the highest-quality product. They stay in sugar, year after year, even when the market, or Mother Nature, hands them a loss. They do it because they love growing beets and cane. They love making a product that is crucial to food consumed at home and across the world. And, yes, they do it because it provides a living for their families and an economic lifeblood to their communities.

When we started our series, the sugar policy’s future in the 2018 Farm Bill was anything but certain. Opponents of American farming were pushing to gut the no-cost policy that helps our growers compete without a burden on taxpayers for the vast majority of the policy’s history. The critics failed, and Congress sided with farmers.

A new Congress takes office in January. At the American Sugar Alliance, we will continue to tell the stories of farmers. After all, they are the best advocates of the American dream that agriculture has made a reality from coast to coast—a dream also made possible by promises kept in Washington.

Mario Herrera, the son of a Mexican immigrant, put it best:

“This is truly America,” Herrera says. “If it wasn’t for perseverance and commitments, I think we’d be a totally different world in America.”