TABER, Alta. — The 28,000-acre southern Alberta sugar beet harvest is nearing completion with the possibility of record-breaking yields.
Arnie Bergen-Henengouwen, president of Alberta Sugar Beet Growers, said growing conditions favoured sugar beets this year.
“There was a little bit of hail in the area that affected some of the acres, but overall they’re expecting exceptional yields and quality too,” he said.
Yields of about 30 tonnes per acre at 19 to 20 percent sugar content are expected based on early October results. That would mean production of about 100,000 tonnes of sugar.
Last year, growers realized about $56 per tonne of beets but returns for 2016 have yet to be determined.
More than 200 farmers grow sugar beets in the region. Harvest began Sept. 15, which is earlier than usual, Bergen-Henengouwen said. That early harvest, referred to as the mini-harvest, allows the factory to get its slicing operations up and running. Beet harvest began in earnest on Oct. 3.
Beets are delivered to one of six piling stations, in Picture Butte, Vauxhall, Tempest, Burdett, Enchant and Coaldale, or to the Lantic (Rogers) sugar factory in Taber.
Brian Jensen, who works at Lantic, led growers on a tour of the factory Oct. 7.
He said the factory had been running smoothly in large part because of beet quality and dry field conditions, which limited the amount of soil clinging to the beets.
The factory, which is the only sugar beet processing plant in Canada, processes about 6,800 tonnes of beets daily, or 260 tonnes per hour. From that, it produces about 900 tonnes of sugar.
“The quality of the beets makes it run a lot smoother. With the advancements … the research that’s done on the farms, we get fantastic quality beets,” said Jensen.
Sugar leaves the factory in many forms and sizes, from bulk totes of up to 1,400 kilograms, to the small packets of sugar used on restaurant tables.
Between those extremes, it produces 50 pound packages for the United States and for Canada it packages 40, 20, 10, four, two and one kilogram bags. As well, it packages one kg bags of icing sugar and industrial sizes of 20 and 40 kg.
“We also do a fair amount of business in liquid sugar and so we have a large customer base of bee producers, honey producers, and those beekeepers take a significant volume of sugar in the fall and in the springtime to feed their bees. The business has just been growing and growing and growing. It’s wonderful for them and for us to be able to move a lot of that volume through them,” said Jensen.
“We also sell liquid sugar to a lot of bottlers, beverage bottlers, ice cream facilities, milk plants. We do a lot of volume through them as well.”
Jensen said the packaging line can’t keep up with the sugar extracted during the beet campaign, so the thick juice derived in early processing is stored in holding tanks until it can be processed further.
“We have what we call our campaign, which goes from September until mid-February. Then we have a break until we can get enough of that sugar packaged and out of the silos. Then we have our juice run, is what we call it, which usually lasts about a month and a half to two months of processing.”
The factory employs about 300 people during the harvest campaign and 150 full-time.
All sugar beets are contracted by Lantic with the ASBG, and there are two years remaining on the current contract.
Negotiations have at times been difficult, with Lantic threatening to close the plant and growers demanding more acres and higher payments.
Bergen-Henengouwen acknowledged that the relationship between growers and Lantic must be carefully managed.
“”It’s definitely something that the board is focused on now,” he said.
“We want to make sure we don’t end up in that same spot. It’s definitely a focus of the board. Our new general manager is helping out quite a bit on that.
“Negotiations are always going to be tough but I think as long as both parties can come to the table and talk, that’s where we want to be.”
The new general manager, Melody Garner-Skiba, replaced former general manager Gerald Third earlier this year.
Sandra Marsden, president of the Canadian Sugar Institute, said export markets are crucial to ex-pand the industry.
“The TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement) would be really, really great … because there’s more access to the U.S. for beet sugar, as well as sugar-containing products. That’s how we can grow the market. Canadian population is not growing fast enough and people aren’t eating more sugar, so we need export markets.”
Marsden said Canada’s sugar trade with the United States is always under scrutiny.
“We have to be vigilant in Canada because we face very restrictive quotas to the U.S., so we can only sell 10,000 tonnes of beet sugar into the U.S., whereas our market is wide open.
“We do have anti-dumping duties right now, protecting us from their surplus. We just have to continue to defend the industry against those unfair practices.”