Storm Challenges RRV Beet Harvest

Published online: Oct 17, 2019 News Mikkel Pates
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Source: AgWeek

Mahar Farms will probably end up with "average" precipitation this growing season, but when much of it comes at the end it's anything but normal.

Mahar Farms has been around since the early 1900s. Pat Mahar and his son, Scott, as well as Pat's brother, Jim, and Jim's son, Thomas are running the farm. They planted about 1,600 acres of beets this year and harvested about 40 percent of those before a 20-inch snow Oct. 10-12 stopped them in their tracks.

The Mahars say they hope conditions allow them to complete the harvest, which goes to the Drayton, N.D., factory of American Crystal Sugar Co.

"It'll be hard to get ''em," Scott says. "It won't totally dry up, but I think we'll be able to lift them up and pull the trucks around to make it all work."

Scott thought getting back in on Saturday, Oct. 19, might be possible, assuming no new precipitation.

"I think we've got time yet," his father, Pat, says. "Hopefully the forecast gets better toward the end of the week. It's going to be difficult, but we have the equipment to slog it through. We have some very good help that have worked for us for a long time. We have confidence in them as well as us."

Scott says the farm has received 12 to 13 inches of precipitation in the previous three weeks. Before that, they had a summer of low moisture. The soil accepted and absorbed the first 7 inches or so within three to four days.

"It was dry for the sugarbeet crop, but it also made it through. It was not growing very well in July, and the beginning of August, but it started growing as soon as it rained." Scott says he had expected about 20 tons per acre on beets, but it's looking better than that today. "I think the sugar content and quality are "hanging in there" at that 18 to 18.5%," Scott said.

Quality is relevant if they can get the beets out of the field.

Valley-wide View

Crystal Sugar, a farmer-owned cooperative based in Moorhead, Minn., stood at about 3.7 million tons harvested as of Tuesday, Oct. 15, about 33 percent of the "expected crop." The company board allowed a planting tolerance of 73 to 78 percent of the shares owned at spring planting time. The company allowed an extra 9,800 acres because of the later spring planting.

The company has five factory districts and the East Grand Forks, Minn., and Hilllsboro, N.D., factory districts appeared to be the wettest, followed by Crookston, Minn. The Moorhead, Minn., factory was in better shape.

"While this situation appears ominous, the cooperative has faced these challenges before and remains optimistic that the weather conditions will improve and permit most shareholders to resume harvest," the company said in a statement. Sugar beets were harvested well into November in 2018, the company said.

No piling stations were operating Tuesday, but Brian Ingulsrud, vice president of agriculture, expected some might resume at the end of the week.

Ingulsrud said the company had "a little over a week of easily-available" beets to use, or about 1 million tons. He said if they go more than a week without harvesting, they'd be able to free up some beets that "aren't as easily accessible."

Company officials said it was too speculative to comment how growers would share fixed costs in the case of a crop failure. They also declined to speculate on what the percentage of harvest is required for the company to break-even, or to discuss whether sugar sales are made in advance of a crop being harvested and processed.

They acknowledged that beets harvested in wet conditions tend to be muddy, which tends to increase processing costs.The long-term bugaboo would be premature, extreme cold weather, which could lock beets into the soil and damage them so they can't be stored and processed.

The co-op typically issues an initial payment for a year's beets on Nov. 15.

Pat Mahar says the timing of payments is important in dealing with landlords, but says landowners typically "want good farmers on their land."

Pat recalls being in high school in 1959 and helping his father. "We got a fall like this and we didn't get 'em out. We tried but we also didn't have the equipment (they have today). But the ground got too hard. We couldn't finish. You can't buck Mother Nature."

Still Optimistic

Relatively few unharvested beets around the Mahar farm appear to have had the tops removed in preparation for harvest. Intact tops can be very effective in providing cover in light freezes. "Mid-20s, it gets borderline," Pat says, of potential freeze damage.

Even at its best, this kind of harvest is likely to be hard on equipment, and — more importantly — on people, Pat says.The farm has five full-time people and another 15 to 16 part-time, seasonal. "Our full-time people are doing some maintenance. Our part-timers are sitting around doing not a whole lot, and they're getting antsy.

"We have truck drivers that come from a long distance away, and we need to keep them around," he says.

The Mahars also have other crops to harvest — nearly 1,300 acres of soybeans, 600 acres of pinto beans and 700 acres of corn. But the beets are the centerpiece.

"I want to believe we'll get them all," says Pat, a former board member for American Crystal, and a former president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association. Mahar describes the sugar beet crop and industry as the "economic engine" of the Red River Valley.

Even with the heavy snow, the Mahars think their situation is as good as any beet area in the Red River Valley. The Mahars' sugarbeets were still partially buried in snow on Tuesday, but the leaves showed no frost damage and should go into piling stations in good shape.

"I'm worried about my own, but I'm worried about the whole valley," Pat says. "We need every beet to make a substantial payment to the shareholders." In the co-op structure, the co-op pays the bills first and what's left is shared among the shareholders.

"We need the good Lord to give us some good weather," Pat says. "We need to get some sunshine and dry weather for two to three weeks and then we'll be able wrap things up in fine fashion."