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Sugar beets providing stability amid challenging market for Idaho farmers

By: John O'Connell
Published in Blog on  October 06, 2020

Idaho sugar beet growers are reporting good yields and sugar content so far during this year’s harvest. Idaho farmers grow about 170,000 acres of sugar beets each year.

By John O’Connell

Intermountain Farm and Ranch

AMERICAN FALLS — As he wraps up a tumultuous growing season, complicated by coronavirus-related market disruptions, American Falls farmer Jim Tiede knows he can count on at least one crop to sweeten his harvest outlook. 

Idaho farmers dug 14% of their sugar beet acres during early harvest throughout September. Growers commenced with their general beet harvest on Oct. 5. Early reports are that the crop likely won't set any production records but should be well above average. 

Grain prices have been soft, and Tiede, who had planned to plant 850 acres of spuds this year, wound up raising just 600 potato acres due to reductions in his processing contract. Fortunately, he's found stability in his sugar beets.

"The beets are kind of the cash cow now," Tiede said. "... We got all our beets in early this year and we didn't have to replant. That will help cushion the blow from lack of potato acres."

Tiede was pleasantly surprised to discover his beets had about 17% sugar during his early harvest, and some beets tested above 18%. Tiede expects the cool October nights and mornings should drive up his sugar content by another percentage point as he continues digging.

He's been averaging about 40 tons of beets per acre, and he expects his yield will also rise slightly during general harvest. 

"We've got a really good crop," Tiede said. "I think the tonnage is up a little bit from last year and the sugars seem to be right on the curve."

American Falls farmer Lamar Isaak said beets from his early harvest averaged around 15% sugar and yields approached 35 tons per acre. He thinks yields have already risen to about 37 tons per acre since the end of September, and he believes sugar content will jump a percentage point or two before the last beet is dug.

"It looks like the beets are coming in clean," Isaak said. "It's a little warmer than we want it to be."

American Falls farmer Jeff Pahl said several farmers in Power County had to stop digging early on the opening day of general beet harvest due to warm weather.

Pahl estimates his sugar content has been around 17%, and he expects yields will "settle out" in the 40-ton-per-acre range.

"The yields are probably a little above average and it kind of trended that way through the early part of the harvest," Pahl said. "Sugars started out about average but seem to be improving as we go."

Pahl said sugar beets consistently provide reliable returns to growers.

The stability results from a domestic sugar policy that uses price supports, tariff-rate quotas and marketing allotments to influence the amount of sugar available in the U.S.

Furthermore, production is limited because Idaho growers must hold shares in a grower cooperative, Snake River Sugar Co., in order to sell their beets to Amalgamated Sugar Co. for processing.

Idaho farmers raise about 170,000 acres of sugar beets per year — all but 10,000 acres of the total number grown for Amalgamated. Idaho also ranks second behind Minnesota for total sugar beet production. 

Brad Griff, executive director of Idaho Sugar Beet Growers Association, said harvest should wrap up on Nov. 1. He said it's still early to tell if Idaho beet growers will best the production records they set in 2018, when they averaged 18.5% sugar content and 40.5 tons per acre. 

"We're mostly on pace to be a very similar crop to last year," Griff said. 

Griff anticipates growers will turn profits from beet harvest and "offset hardships they may have experienced from some of their other crops.”

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