Beet growers rally from 2019 bitter harvest

Planting of the 2020 sugar beet crop in southern Alberta could begin as early as next month but growers will first have to contend with many acres of beets they were unable to harvest last fall.

Snow and hard frost prevented about 44 percent of last year’s 28,000 acres from being dug and delivered to the Lantic sugar factory in Taber, Alta. This year, Lantic has contracted 30,000 acres with growers, an increase of 2,000 acres over last year.

That sounded a positive note at the Alberta Sugar Beet Growers annual meeting in Lethbridge March 4.

“It’s certainly a year that had its challenges, but as the eternal optimists we are, the board and growers continue to plan for 2020 and beyond, moving the industry forward and doing the things that support our vision of an Alberta sugar beet industry that is progressive and sustainable for future generations,” said outgoing ASBG president Arnie Bergen-Henengouwen in his address to growers.

“We currently have an agreement with Lantic for the 2020 crop year … the last year of a two-year extension negotiated a couple of years ago.”

As for sugar beets still sitting in the field, it’s a matter of tillage and then planting a different crop on that land because growers follow a strict four-year rotation on sugar beets.

“The toughest part is going to be equalizing fertility. If you’ve got a part field removed, it will affect fertility, so there will be some juggling going on. But by and large most of the nutrients of the beets that were in the field are left in the ground. They may take a little bit longer to release,” Bergen-Henengouwen said in an interview.

“Typically most beets are followed with wheat. That’s the predominant crop that follows beets in a rotation.”

Gary Vucurevich, a member of the ASBG board, was among growers who lost some crop in 2019. Only about 60 percent of his acres were harvested.

“That’s the most crop we’ve ever left in the ground. Anytime that happens, it’s really disappointing. Hard to take for farmers,” he said.

Before Mother Nature intervened, growers were anticipating record yields last year.

“We’ll never know exactly how good it was, but I would say it would have probably ranked up there in the top four years ever in sugar beet crops, and that speaks to the growers but also to some of the seed genetics that are available and the better way we’re doing things now,” Vucurevich said.

Looking ahead, an additional 2,000 contracted acres will be welcome. It may not match the acreage seen 20 years ago in the region, but production methods and crop genetics now see higher production on less land.

“Growers are pleased that they do get an opportunity to try and recoup some of that lost revenue. I would say if we were to increase (acreage) by 40 percent, the crop could potentially be so big that the factory doesn’t have the capacity to process it in time, and then that would impact our payment on the other end.”

Bergen-Henengouwen said world sugar production last year was the lowest seen since 2010-11. However, that hasn’t driven world sugar prices higher in part because of large stockpiles, particularly in India.

Sugar producers in the United States will receive US$285 million in government support because of bad harvest conditions, a major advantage over Canadian growers.

“That’s a luxury that we don’t have access to, a government that will put money forward like that,” said Bergen-Henengouwen.

Despite last year’s problems, which included drought-delayed planting, early season irrigation restrictions, localized hail and a frigid October halt to harvest, the ASBG remains healthy, he added.

“Financially, our fee is based on a per-acre fee. It used to be based on a tonnage fee, which would have been quite catastrophic to our organization. But it’s based on an acreage fee and growers have been good in submitting that. So our projections are steady as it goes.”

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