On the Rebound

Solid comeback expected for U.S. sugarbeet industry

Published online: Aug 09, 2020 Feature, News Tanner Ehmke, Manager, Knowledge Exchange Division, CoBank
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This article appears as the cover feature in the August/September 2020 issue of Sugar Producer.

Sugarbeet growers and cooperatives in the U.S. are expected to have a stronger financial year ahead, with improved production and high prices for the 2020-21 crop ushering in a recovery from the stressful growing season last year. Many growers and processors suffered through significant financial strains due to extreme weather, market uncertainty and severe crop production losses that plagued the 2019-20 marketing year.

new report from CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange division details the market forces and production dynamics that suggest the industry is well-positioned for a financial rebound, as consumer demand for sugar remains high.

“Assuming we return to reasonably normal harvest weather this fall, expectations are for a much bigger crop to be harvested for the 2020-21 season,” says Tanner Ehmke, manager of CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange. “With processors contracting refined sugar at much higher prices, fortunes are expected to turn favorable for growers and processors in the marketing year ahead.”

The U.S. sugarbeet harvest in 2019 marked the fifth-biggest year-over-year decline on record, dropping 14 percent to 28.6 million short tons. Production in three major sugarbeet-producing states, Minnesota, North Dakota and Nebraska, fell more than 20 percent. Abandonment rates nationwide skyrocketed to the highest level since the Great Depression with 13.5 percent of U.S. planted acres not harvested due to ongoing wet weather issues. Yields also fell to the lowest level in five years due to late planting and poor harvest conditions.

Many U.S. sugarbeet growers financed their spring crop planting with crop insurance indemnity payments and financial aid from USDA, while processors struggled with less throughput and lower extraction rates amid high fixed costs.

Wet field conditions this spring hampered planting efforts for sugarbeet growers. However, total acreage planted is expected to increase over last year and drive production higher. The USDA’s Prospective Plantings report forecast U.S. sugarbeet acreage at 1,138,500 acres for 2020, an increase of 6,500 acres compared to 2019.

Ultimately, total acreage will likely be revised upward with farmers expected to make up for lower yields to fulfill their shares of contracted beet production with processors. The USDA is currently predicting the 2020-21 sugarbeet crop harvest to increase 18 percent year-over-year, landing at 33.7 million short tons, assuming a return to normal harvest weather this fall.

With demand remaining strong and refined sugar supplies tightening, the price of wholesale refined beet sugar has surged to 44 cents per pound as of June 1, up from 35 cents per pound last fall and the highest since 2012. Raw sugar prices, though, have held steady at around 25 to 27 cents per pound for over the past two years.

COVID-19 has had minimal impact on total demand for sugar in the U.S. While total sales to sugar buyers in the foodservice sector have suffered due to the loss of customers, retail sales to consumers during the pandemic has skyrocketed.

“With processors contracting an expected large crop in today’s strong price environment, cooperatives are expected to be in a much-improved financial position, enabling them to reinvest proceeds to make plant upgrades and disburse more back to co-op members,” says Ehmke.

The full report, Sugar Outlook: Sweeter Times Ahead for Sugarbeet Growers and Processors, is available at www.cobank.com.