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Sugar harvest drags growers through worst, but big yields lift region's economy

Beet growers struggle in a muddy field northeast of Clara City in this undated photo taken during the harvest season. Sugar beet growers in the area feared they would not be able to harvest their crops in time, but their struggles were rewarded with one of the best crops ever. Photo by John White, Clara City Herald

RENVILLE -- Tom Jacobs' father started raising sugar beets in Renville County in 1964, and with the exception of a few years in the early '70s, the family has continued that tradition ever since.

By all measures, this was the most nerve-wracking harvest that father or son ever experienced, said Tom Jacobs of rural Olivia.

"It was literally one rain from disaster,'' said Jacobs. Had a rain been followed by a hard freeze, much of this region's sugar beet crop would have been lost, he said.

If so, the economic shock wave would have been felt for 100 miles in every direction of the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative processing plant in Renville.

By its own measure, the cooperative pumps more than $170 million a year into the regional economy.

That number includes payments to its 587 growers and wages for the plant's 200-plus employees, taxes and purchases of goods and services. Growers raise sugar beets for the Renville plant on more than 119,000 acres in an area that extends into 17 counties.

The Renville sugar plant is considered the most modern in the world, and one of the largest. It processes an average of 2.6 million tons of sugar beets a year.

Most estimates put this year's crop at or over 3 million tons. A harvest of more than 3 million tons is the number being bandied about the processing plant by workers, although they point out that they have not seen any official tally from company administrators.

Company officials did not respond to requests to discuss this year's harvest, but most outside observers believe this year's crop was a record breaker for the cooperative, according to Byron Hogberg, director of the federal Farm Service Agency office in Olivia.

Growers contacted in the region report that all of this year's crop was harvested in the nick of time, in contrast to the troubles experienced elsewhere. American Crystal Sugar, headquartered in Moorhead, reported earlier that it was able to harvest 85 percent of its crop in the Red River Valley.

Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D., reported earlier that about 30 percent of this year's crop was left in the ground.

Some of the bounty of this region's crop is headed west. Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative crop from the Benson area is now being hauled to Wahpeton. Minn-Dak has an agreement with the Renville-based cooperative to process some of this year's crop.

This year's harvest began under seemingly ideal conditions in September, but was bogged down by rains that made this one of the wettest October's on record. Jacobs said he was able to turn a wheel in the fields on only three or four days the entire month of October. Each of those forays was a push-and-pull mud fest.

It was very much the same struggle in western Chippewa County, where Lance Knoshal opened his fields in September and couldn't call it quits until Nov. 16. What can be as little as a 10-day harvest sprint in the fields instead became like a marathon. Knoshal said they pulled trucks and tractors from the mud and struggled, but were also surprised.

The larger equipment utilized in sugar beet harvesting today proved far less susceptible to breakdowns and plugged up less frequently than was the case years ago, he said.

Fellow sugar beet grower Larry Kittleson of rural Milan said he too was surprised by how the equipment fared under these most difficult of conditions.

The biggest toll was on the nerves of the human operators. "You never know when winter is coming,'' said Kittleson. He said the delayed harvest made for a constant worry: Would they get the crop out in time?

And, of course, the sugar beet growers had corn and soybean crops to harvest as well. Kittleson was still in the process of helping a neighbor finish his corn harvest when contacted last week.

While growers are reporting some of their best yields, they also wonder what yields might have been. The wet conditions forced them to cut more of the beet tops, leaving some portion of the sugar-containing root behind.

Jacobs said that despite the difficulty of the harvest, he feels gratitude for the blessing of a good crop.

As for all of that stress? "That's farming,'' said Kittleson. "You take the good years with the bad. That's the way it is.''