Sugar beet crop in Colorado one of best ever |

Sugar beet crop in Colorado one of best ever

ERIC BELLAMY/ebellamy@greeleytribune.comPhilip Frias, left, and Alberto Ruiz watch as sugar beets pour from a truck at the North Greeley Pile Grounds on Thursday afternoon. The harvest is just getting started, but area farmers may be sitting on the best crop in recent history - if not ever - as weather and other conditions were ideal this year.

LA SALLE – Rick Schafer and Frank Eckhardt can only hope Mother Nature maintains her calm side for a while longer.

The two central Weld County farmers are among those in the four-state area of the Western Sugar Cooperative who are looking at one of the best – if not the best – sugar beet crop in years, both in terms of yield and price.

The two, who farm in the La Salle area, said that crop harvested so far is good and is getting better.

Eckhardt said between 80 and 90 acres had been harvested as of mid-week last week.

“The sugar (content) goes up every day. The last time we harvested (the beets) they were at 15.9 percent and when we started it was 13.9 percent,” he said. But, he said, there are still 350 acres of beets in the ground and with the possibility of an early October freeze that presents a worry. Years ending in the number nine, he recalled, have historically had bad harvest weather.

Bob Abrams of Berthoud grew up on a sugar beet farm south of Loveland, then worked for the Great Western Sugar Co. for nearly 40 years before retiring in 1995. He said years ending in nine have been bad for sugar beet farmers dating back to at least 1929.

As a 9-year-old, he remembered his father having to take beets out of the field using horses, because the ground was so wet and sloppy trucks couldn’t be used. Then the area was hit by the blizzard of 1949, one of the worst in history, but the real problems came in 1969, when sugar beets froze in the ground and farmers lost much of their crop.

“I remember 1969 vividly, because we had to shut down the factories when frozen beets started coming in,” Abrams said. Other “nine” years have had their problems leading up to 2009 and Abrams, along with others, are hoping 2009 will not be a repeat year.

Schafer, meanwhile, said his harvest was starting to pick up momentum, but the weather forecast this weekend and into next week was a concern.

“We got off to a great start this spring. We had plenty of moisture and we didn’t have to do any re-planting, and that’s good, because that can get expensive,” he said.

Kent Wimmer, spokesman for the Western Sugar Cooperative in Denver, was crossing his fingers looking at this weekend’s forecast, which called for freezing temperatures and more precipitation, perhaps even in the form of snow.

“That’s a little too early for that and we don’t really need it at this time, but we’ll deal with it,” he said. He expected only 20 percent to 25 percent of the state’s harvest to be complete now.

Wimmer confirmed that this year’s crop just might be the best in recent history. In Colorado, he said, a little more than 30,000 acres of beets were planted and farmers lost virtually nothing to weather or insects.

The advent of Roundup Ready seed and a seed treatment against insects “has revolutionized the industry,” Wimmer said. As a result, farmers didn’t have to deal with weeds because of the Roundup seed and the treatment took care of most insects that have plagued the crop in the past.

Usually, Wimmer said, the company budgets for a 6 percent to 10 percent loss of each year’s crop due to weather and disease problems, but this year less than 1 percent was lost.

“We’ve got a big crop coming at us and a good crop coming at us. Now all we have to do is get it out of the fields and processed,” Wimmer said. Western, he added, has contracted 135,200 acres of sugar beets in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana.

Sugar beet production totaled 758,000 tons in 2008, according to the Colorado office of the National Agricultural Statistic Service, down 1 percent from the previous year. Last year, 28,600 acres were harvested, down 2 percent from the 2007 crop, which had a value of $27.5 million, the service said.

In Colorado, Wimmer said, this year’s yield will be in the 27-28 ton to the acre range, up at least a ton per acre or more, and Wimmer attributes that to the new seed and excellent weather conditions – to date.

“In the past, our good farmers, the top 20 percent or so, were getting a crop in the 27-30 ton area, but now even the bottom 80 percent are getting up to 30 tons,” Wimmer said.

As a result of that monster crop, the early harvest in Colorado got started more than a week early – Sept. 10 – with those early beets used to get Western’s Fort Morgan factory up and running. The regular harvest was to start this weekend, weather permitting.

Since the only processing factory left in the state is in Fort Morgan, beets from Weld will be stored in piles at various locations, then trucked to the Fort Morgan plant, which will process them well into late February or perhaps even early March of next year because of the volume of this year’s crop.

Wimmer said it appears the price for sugar beets will once more be good, but it will be the end of October before farmers get an idea of their final payment for the 2008 crop and initial payment on the 2009 crop.

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