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Serving: MI

Record crop forces cooperative to leave sugarbeets in field

Courtesy MSC sugarbeet harvest
SUGARBEET HARVEST: Sugarbeet harvest was in full swing the first part of November on Helmreich Farms in Bay County's Frankenlust Township.
Farmers are required to leave 5% in the field and are asked to leave even more.

There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The unique combination of a near-perfect growing season from March to September, followed by what seemed like nonstop rain in relatively warm conditions, caused Michigan’s sugarbeet crop to keep growing and growing.

Harvest is proving to produce a record-setting yield, and with all those beets, Michigan Sugar Co. (MSC) officials are concerned about how long it will take to process this year’s crop and the potential for beet pile spoilage.

On Nov. 1, officials of the cooperative told their nearly 900 grower-owners that they must leave 5% of their sugarbeets unharvested this year. That amounts to about 8,000 acres of the nearly 163,000 acres planted this season.

Related: Challenging sugarbeet market and start of a new series

However, as the harvest progressed, company officials now believe that won’t be enough to offset the huge tonnage coming in.

So, on Nov. 7, MSC announced an additional voluntary, buyback program to earmark an additional 5,000 acres to be left in the field this year. Grower-owners who signed up for the program will be paid for those acres based on averages paid for their already delivered crop.

“The 5% was mandatory, but these additional acres are truly voluntary,” says Mark Flegenheimer, president and CEO of MSC, in a news release. “We simply have to take steps at this time to limit our tonnage. We’re already 7.5 tons per acre above our five-year average of 29 tons per acre. We’re not just going to break our previous record [31.64 tons per acre in 2015] by a little bit. We’re going to shatter it.”

Early predictions were for a banner 34 tons per acre. But many growers are harvesting 40 tons per acre, and some are even topping 50 tons per acre, officials report. The predicted average is now 36.5 tons per acre.

The problem: Sugarbeets are stored in aggressively managed piles. Still, beets are a vegetable and will decompose after time, advises Rob Clark, MSC director of communications and community relations.

“We don’t start full harvest until October because that is when outdoor temperatures are typically colder,” he says. “Beets store best in cold temperatures, which is why the piles can be more easily managed throughout the winter and early spring months.”

Extended slicing campaign

Flegenheimer says this year’s crop is 1.2 million tons more than expected. The company anticipates slicing sugarbeets into mid-April, nearly a month past when a typical slicing campaign ends at MSC’s factories in Bay City, Caro, Croswell and Sebewaing.

“With a crop this big, you run the danger of not even finishing by May,” Flegenheimer says. “That’s not a position we want to get into because, by then, managing the sugarbeet piles becomes too challenging.”

Leading up to this decision, MSC Executive Vice President Jim Ruhlman said, “We don’t want to run into a situation where our harvested beets are decomposing beyond a usable state in the piles.”

Clark added, “We could pull every last beet out of the ground, but growers would pay to transport them to the piling grounds, and then we would pay to transport them to our factories. And when they went bad in the spring, we’d have to pay again to transport them out and dispose of them.”

In the end, MSC will process about 150,000 acres this season, while growers will leave more than 500,000 tons of sugarbeets in the fields. Flegenheimer says all of this will be taken into consideration when determining how many acres of sugarbeets to plant next season.

“We likely won’t be planting 100% of our acres,” he says. “It’s tricky, because you don’t want to make decisions based on one year of data that is so different from our five-year averages. And, of course, you never know what type of growing season Mother Nature will bring. There are many factors at play here, and it is important to look at the data and not base decisions on emotions.”

There is no talk about expanding processing capacity by building a new factory. However, MSC recently completed a $70 million-plus capital upgrade project at its Croswell factory aimed at increasing slicing capacity by 50% — from 4,000 tons of sugarbeets per day to 6,000 tons per day.

“This decision was driven by the fact that the majority of our acres are grown in our East District,” Clark says. “Increasing capacity in Croswell made sense because of that.”

MSC is the third largest of nine sugarbeet processing companies in the U.S. Michigan is one of 11 states where sugarbeets are grown in the country.

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