Southern Alberta’s sugar beet harvest shows promise

Sugar beet growers are looking for temperatures in the mid-teens going into harvest and no lengthy frost. | File photo

The heat that caused problems for many prairie producers this summer proved beneficial for the province’s sugar beet crop

The sugar beet crop in Alberta got off to a slow start but the high temperatures that put a blanket of heat over the fields across the southern half of the province were just the things to get the plants growing.

“We had the hot days and cooler nights, relatively, which sugar beets really like,” said Gary Tokariuk, president of the Alberta Sugar Beet Growers.

However, there are some quirks to the crop.

“Sugar beets are a funny commodity. You really never know until you get in and you start digging them,” said Tokariuk.

He believes the prognosis is good for this harvest, which is set to begin earlier than normal this year.

“The reason we’re starting so early is Lantic needs the sugar,” he said, referencing the processing facility based in Taber and owned by Rogers. “That’s a good thing for us.”

Tokariuk tied some of that demand to the pandemic, which saw more people baking and cooking, as well as increased consumer desire to know where products come from.

For sugar produced in Alberta, it’s identified with a 22 on the label of a bag of Rogers Sugar.

“I think that’s very important to a lot of people.”

There is also potential to produce more than the current 28,000 acres currently under cultivation in Alberta, which can produce up to 125,000 tonnes of refined sugar, said Tokariuk.

That tonnage supplies 10 percent of the domestic market at most.

“We’d really like to see 20 percent of the market grown here in Canada,” he said. “If you look at our little plant there (in Taber), the economic spinoff is $250 million off of 28,000 acres. If you could expand the plant double or grow twice as many beets, it’s amazing what it could mean for Alberta.”

But for right now, Tokariuk is looking for temperatures in the mid-teens going into harvest, no lengthy frost and to be able to pick beets as they hit that 20-degree core temperature sweet spot for proper storage.

“The last two years have been really bad,” he said of being able to hit those targets. “We had a foot of snow and then we had minus 20 for two or three days. It’s not minus temperatures, it’s the duration. When you have it that long, it kills the leaves and then it goes down into the crown of the beet.”

That leads to issues with harvest stability of the beets as well as storage.

This year, there have been problems getting labour at the half dozen sugar beet piling grounds located around southern Alberta.

“As far as farmers, our biggest trouble is truck drivers,” said Tokariuk.

He cited Alberta’s Mandatory Entry Level Training (MELT) implemented in 2019 to improve training standards for Class 1 drivers as one of the reasons for the shortage.

“It’s expensive and it’s an arduous process,” said Tokariuk. “Then it seems like a lot of guys get a guy licensed and then he takes off for greener pastures. That’s always one of our concerns, the availability of good quality truck drivers.”

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