Alta. sugar beet producers have bumper year

A bountiful crop is especially welcome given disastrous weather last fall that resulted in half the beet crop unharvested

Southern Alberta sugar beet growers are harvesting one of the best crops of the last five years.

Farmer reports indicate yields of 28 to 29 tonnes per acre, well above the average of 26 tonnes, and sugar content of more than the average 20 percent, said Alberta Sugar Beet Growers president Gary Tokariuk.

“It’s a beautiful crop this year,” he said while standing in a sugar beet field near Lethbridge, where fellow grower Gary Vucurevich was harvesting beets on Oct. 16.

“It’s just a really good feeling to see that. It feels good to get rewarded for your work for the year.”

This year Lantic Sugar (Rogers), which operates the factory in Taber, Alta., contracted 30,000 acres of beets from area growers. Those acres are expected to yield 125,000 to 130,000 tonnes of sugar.

One Alberta sugar beet of this size can yield 42 teaspoons of sugar. | Barb Glen photo

A bountiful crop this year is especially welcome given disastrous weather conditions last fall that resulted in half the beet crop unharvested.

This year, 380 millimetres of rain in May and June had growers worried, said Tokariuk, but that was followed by six weeks of hot days and cool nights, which are ideal for sugar beets.

As of Oct. 16, there had not been a killing frost in southern Alberta, although that changed the following day when sub-zero temperatures and snow finally appeared.

A look down the throat of a growing sugar beet. | Barb Glen photo

The longer growing season allowed the beets to store away more sugar.

Tokariuk said Lantic is reporting about 92 percent sugar extraction, another good number. The factory processes about 6,000 tonnes per day if beets arrive in good condition.

Tokariuk, a third generation farmer, grew 152 acres of beets this year and finished his harvest Oct. 16. However, harvest continued in other areas of the south. Snow recently created muddy conditions, requiring many trucks to be pulled through fields with tractors. The beets are then hauled to one of six piling grounds.

A sugar beet harvester approaches Oct. 16 in a field near Lethbridge, Alta. | Barb Glen photo

The Taber factory started processing on Sept. 11, the earliest ever start to beet harvest. Tokariuk said Lantic required sugar to meet its markets and the half-sized harvest of last year created some urgency for an early 2020 start.

The factory will continue operations until it has chewed through the harvest, typically by late February or early March if all goes well.

All of the sugar produced in southern Alberta fills only eight percent of the domestic market, said beet growers’ executive director Melody Garner-Skiba. The rest is supplied by imported cane sugar.

Alberta Sugar Beet Growers executive director Melody Garner-Skiba cuts up a fresh sugar beet so visitors to an Oct. 16 field day could sample its sweetness. | Barb Glen photo

Canadian sugar can be identified on Rogers Sugar bags by the number 22 on the label.

Given the success of this year’s crop and the prospects for reasonable profit, Tokariuk said beet growers were encouraged by the recent announcement that $815 million will be spent to expand irrigation in the region.

Leaves fly as Alberta sugar beet grower Gary Vucurevich lops the top from a beet to demonstrate how things used to be done before the arrival of modern beet equipment. | Barb Glen photo

“There’s room for expansion in the east around Grassy Lake where there’s really good land,” he said. “Those guys are just clamouring to put water on it and grow potatoes and sugar beets. Everything is good in a rotation.”

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