The Forecast Looks Sweet

By R. Johnson 10/9/2009

You can’t avoid it. It’s in the smoothie, the slice of cake at dessert, and even the candy you’ll give trick-or- treaters later this month. It’s sugar, and more than half of it in the U.S. comes from a crop that may not be as popular as the aforementioned treats—sugarbeets.

Sugarbeet production began in 1936, and beet sugar currently represents about 54 percent of domestically produced sugar.

Sugarbeets are a root crop that flourishes in temperate climates primarily in California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.

“Approximately 60 percent of the sugarbeets in the country are grown in an area that includes Red River Valley, which forms the border of Minnesota and North Dakota, and extends into southern Minnesota,” Steve Welker, Monsanto alfalfa and sugarbeet lead, said. “Generally, sugarbeets are grown in cooler climates, although they don’t have to be. There’s also a production area in southern California.”

Sugarbeets are planted in late March through early April and require roughly a five-to-six-month growing period. Currently, sugarbeets are planted on an estimated 1.3 million acres in the U.S. and roughly 5,172,671 hectares globally according to FAO.

“Essentially, sugarbeet acres are not increasing,” Welker said. “In fact, they had been declining for several years, but during the past couple years it has steadied. The acres aren’t increasing because there is enough sugar being grown on existing acres.”

“Monsanto does not sell sugarbeet seed, but we partner with sugarbeet seed companies and license the [Roundup Ready®] trait to them,” he continued. “But whether it’s from cane or sugarbeets, or GenuityRoundup Ready® sugarbeets, sugar is sugar. There is no detectable difference in any way.”

Farmers began to harvest sugarbeets in September and will likely continue through the end of October.

“Harvest in Colorado began on Sept. 10,” Alan Welp, who farms in Ray, Colorado, said. “We’ve harvested a few sugarbeets for the early dig to get our factory started early. We’ll start full sugarbeet harvest on Oct. 9.  That’s when we’ll be able to pile the sugarbeet crop for storage. We’ll be digging 24 hours, around the clock, but that only lasts for a couple of weeks, if the weather cooperates. Before Oct. 9, our temperatures are too warm.  Beets are a very perishable commodity, so we want very good temperatures as we store them.”

When fully grown, a sugarbeet is about a foot long, weighs two to five pounds, and is about 16 to 18 percent sucrose. Sugarbeet factories are located near the fields, because beets are a perishable vegetable.

Welp has been planting sugarbeets on and off for 13 years. He said one of the biggest challenges has been the weeds.

Roundup® has made for an easier management of our weeds,” Welp said. “Roundup has been efficient because you don’t cultivate in strip till.  You use the Roundup technology to control your weeds as opposed to cultivation.  It has eliminated using a lot of the other chemicals.  We don’t have to put down anything prior to planting.”

Welp said in the last two to three years, he and other sugarbeet growers have been averaging 29 tons per acre.

“In eastern Colorado we’ve had a difficult time getting higher sugar percentages.  We’ve probably only averaged about 15 percent sugar.  A lot of the other areas get 16 to 17 percent sugar.  A lot of it is your environment.”

“I’m expecting it to be a really good crop this year,” he said. “Last year I had a great crop and am hoping to beat last year’s crop, but I don’t know.  It’s too early to tell.”