Sugarbeets: Paying the Bills for 100 Years

Published online: Sep 17, 2020 News Sean Ellis
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Source: Post Register

Sugarbeets aren’t the flashiest crop around and they don’t get a lot of headlines, but they have been paying the bills in Idaho for more than 100 years.

About 700 Idaho farmers annually grow roughly 180,000 acres of sugarbeets, which are processed and turned into sugar. About 55 percent of the sugar produced in the U.S. comes from sugarbeets.

Many farmers who grow sugarbeets in Idaho also grow potatoes, Idaho’s most famous commodity, which garners far more headlines than sugarbeets do.

As an example, after last year’s early October cold snap, there were plenty of stories written about how it impacted the state’s spud crop but not so many about how it affected sugarbeets.

Hazelton sugarbeet farmer Randy Grant says he has no problem with the relative lack of attention the crop receives from the general public and media.

“It’s not a big deal that we’re under the radar,” he says. “We don’t need to be potatoes or another crop. We just need to be the humble beet that pays the bills.”

Sugarbeets have been grown in Idaho since the early 1900s.

“They’ve been paying the bills for generations,” said Grant, president of the Idaho Sugarbeet Growers Association’s (ISGA) board of directors. “Many generations of farmers in Idaho have grown up growing sugarbeets.”

Sugar beets may not be the flashiest crop around but they are very reliable when it comes to bringing a stable return on investment to farmers who grow them, said ISGA executive director Brad Griff.

Part of the reason for that is the federal sugar program, which controls how much sugar is allowed to be imported into the U.S., depending on how much sugar is produced domestically.

If U.S. sugarbeet and cane farmers produce a lot of sugar in a given year, fewer imports are allowed into the country. If they produce less, more sugar is allowed into the country.

As a result, “We basically know what the price will be within a reasonable range,” Griff said. “It’s a very reliable crop, and the price is very stable.”

Idaho’s sugarbeet farmers own Amalgamated Sugar Co., which operates three plants in Idaho – in Paul, Twin Falls and Nampa – where the beets are processed into sugar.

Amalgamated is a $1 billion company, and about 1,600 employees work in the processing facilities.

Including the roughly $300 million in farm cash receipts that sugarbeet farmers bring in each year, the crop has a major impact on the state’s economy and underpins many rural economies.

When the secondary impacts of the industry are added in, such as the trucking and other side businesses that support the industry, the impact the crop has on Idaho is very significant, says Mike Garner, a sugarbeet farmer from Raft River who is chairman of the Snake River Sugar Co.’s board of directors.

“Sugarbeets generate a lot of revenue in Idaho, and there is a lot of trickle-down effect as well,” says Garner. “A lot of families, a lot of people, depend on that crop in Idaho.”

“It shows positive returns per acre very consistently, and good returns,” he said. “It’s been a very solid crop in the state for many, many years.”

New Plymouth sugarbeet farmer Galen Lee says another reason that sugarbeet prices have been relatively stable over the years is that sugarbeet growers own shares in the cooperative that owns Amalgamated. Those shares obligate a farmer to grow a certain number of acres each year.

“You can’t jump in and out of sugarbeets, which results in a pretty stable market,” says Lee, a member of Idaho Farm Bureau Federation’s board of directors. “They provide a stable return year in and year out.”

“It’s a very stable crop in the type of row-crop farming we have here in southern Idaho,” says Grant. “They’re pretty stable year in and year out, so you can look ahead and put a budget together because you know the prices are going to be in a range that is usually profitable.”

Despite the important role sugarbeets play in Idaho’s economy and the state’s agricultural industry, many, if not most, Idahoans have little to no idea what a sugarbeet is.

“A lot of people, when you tell them you’re a sugarbeet farmer, they think the red table beet that you buy in the store,” says Grant. “You don’t eat them; you process them into sugar.”

An average sugarbeet produces about one cup of sugar, as well as 2.4 ounces of beet pulp, which is a good feed source for cattle.

Because you don’t buy sugarbeets in a store, “A lot of times, people don’t know that sugar comes from sugarbeets,” says Griff.

Many Idahoans’ first introduction to a sugarbeet is seeing one laying on the road after getting bumped off one of the trucks that haul 7 million tons of beets to the state’s three processing facilities each year.

“Little do they know that one of those beets will make about one cup of sugar,” Lee says.

The crop’s public profile got a boost this past New Year’s Eve when a giant, two-story tall sugarbeet was slowly lowered in Rupert’s town square on midnight to ring in the new year.

“That is pretty unique in the country and probably the world, too,” Lee says. “It shows the community support that sugarbeets have and how important they are to many rural areas in southern Idaho.”

While the general public is collectively clueless about sugarbeets, the rural communities that grow them understand them well, Griff says.

“They play a huge part in many rural communities around the United States and especially here in Idaho,” he says. “We’re definitely a little under the radar, which we’re fine with because sugarbeets pay the mortgage in farm country.”