RENVILLE — Just days before the arrival of yet another wave of rain and possibly snow, the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative committed to full harvest operations.
“Have to,” said President and CEO Steven Domm as he led U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., on a tour of the harvest operations on Tuesday. The full-scale harvest operations had begun at noon Monday.
In its 47-year history, the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative has never had as many acres of sugar beets waiting to be lifted on Oct. 8 as was the case this year, he said.
Wet conditions in spring delayed planting by as much 40 days, and a rainy September has only added to the woes.
“I feel for the farmers,” said Smith, as the two spoke of the challenges faced this year.
“The growers are in peril right now,” said Domm in response.
The cooperative includes more than 500 members, and most of them also raise corn and soybeans. Most have yet to start the harvest of those crops, Domm said as he and the senator drove south of Renville to the Phil Haen farm, where beets were being lifted.
The corn and soybean crops look “marginal,” said Domm as the conversation continued. Prices for both “are in the tank,” he added.
Fortunately, sugar markets are better. Domm said there is stability in the market and price thanks to U.S. sugar policy. That policy was under attack just over a year ago, but Smith said the effort to push that attack back succeeded and continues to hold the bipartisan support it needs.
The cooperative’s CEO said this year’s sugar beet harvest is looking better than might be expected considering the late planting and conditions, but it is not what producers would like or need. It will rank in the bottom one-third of crops in terms of tonnage, he said.
Sugar content has improved as the harvest has progressed and beets are reaching the factory in Renville for processing. There’s hope of seeing about 16 percent sugar content.
Along with all of the challenges Mother Nature has wrought, Domm said the other big challenge that the cooperative faces each autumn is no less: Finding 450 workers for a 30-day harvest campaign is always a major challenge, he told Smith. The cooperative works with neighboring agricultural processors, such as Del Monte, to find the labor needed, he said.
The growers also recruit lots of help. Many of the workers filling seasonal jobs — whether it is operating the scales at the cooperative's 13 beet pile sites or driving trucks — are spouses, grandparents and other relatives and friends of growers, Domm said.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of how this year’s harvest goes. A study by the University of Minnesota in 2017 found that the economic impact of the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative for the state that year alone totaled $817 million, Domm said.
Smith said there’s a lot of concern about the challenges facing farmers. She told reporters after her tour that she is “cautiously optimistic” that trade deals with Mexico and Japan will come together to help improve markets and prices.
She’s not sure how the trade talks with China will fare. “We’ll just have to see where it will go,” she said of the talks that were to start Thursday.