In Midwest, a harvest that may be a little too sweet

With record yields forecast, sugar beet growers may have to limit what they harvest.

Brian Ryberg is experiencing that rarest of all things for an American farmer: a good year.

Rain came to his southern Minnesota farm just in time to save the corn and soybean crops, which are both looking promising. Prices are good. And his sugar beets are shaping up to be some of the best ever, yielding more than 24 tons per acre.

If anything, the yield may be too good. The sugar beet harvest looks so strong that growers worry that processing plants won't be able to handle such a huge crop. One grower-owned processor, American Sugar Crystal, has already drafted a contingency plan in which its farmer members would have to plow under 10 percent of their crop.

For growers, that's a heartbreaking possibility. But thanks to US farm policy, which supports sugar prices by limiting imports, producers have some breathing room.

"You hate to leave anything in the ground," says Nick Sinner, executive director of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association. "But they also understand that if that contingency plan is put in place, it's only because it's a lot of beets. There will be a lot of [growers] that, even after leaving a portion in the ground, will still have a pretty good yield."

Unlike the red beets sold at supermarkets, sugar beets are huge, white, and used only to make sugar. In the US, beets produce more sugar than sugar cane. And this year, the yield is expected to be a record here in the upper Midwest – the nation's fastest-growing sugar-producing area during the 1990s. The US Agriculture Department estimates that while acreage rose 7.4 percent this year, production should jump 26.1 percent.

"It's a very good year, one of our best," says Tom Astrup, vice president for agriculture at American Sugar Crystal, the co-op whose 3,000 growers in the Red River Valley along the Minnesota-North Dakota border face the possibility of plowing under some of their crop.

They won't know for sure until the middle of the harvest, several more weeks down the line, when they see how well the beets have grown since the plan was put in place, and whether recent rains helped them add more bulk.

Although sugar beets can last many months in freezing weather, they will eventually rot in the spring if they're not processed in time.

No such contingency plan has been drafted yet by the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative, to which Mr. Ryberg belongs, but he and other farmers are worried it could be in the works.

Hoping to make such an action unnecessary, they are working hard to get the harvest going early, so that the processing plant can slice its maximum of 14,000 or 15,000 tons a day.

After the beets are washed and sliced, the sugar is taken out, purified, crystallized, and sold in stores and to food producers – no different from cane sugar. With limited capacity at the plant, it becomes a numbers game.

"We're sitting on a bumper crop, but what are you going to do with all of them?" asks Pete Caspers, an agriculturist with the cooperative. "You can only slice so many tons a year."

Not all farmers in Minnesota are doing as well as the sugar beet farmers. Many corn and soybean farmers, especially in the northwest part of the state, suffered from the drought. But for sugar beet growers, the hot, dry weather was a blessing. The bulbous roots thrive in the warmth. Their taproots were able to absorb moisture from deep in the soil.

Ryberg is confident he'll be able to harvest his full crop.

"These are the fun years, when you can talk about buying a $100,000 tractor that it actually looks like you can afford," says the fourth-generation farmer whose father, Howard, still helps him in the fields. "It makes the long hours and repair work all worthwhile."

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