Future looks sweet for sugar beet growers

By Tim Kalinowski


While this year’s sugar beet harvest may have been a week to 10 days behind schedule, for the sugar beet industry in Alberta as a whole the future is looking bright with new markets opening, new product lines being introduced and a new ways forward in dealing with Lantic Sugar.

Photos by Tim Kalinowski Alberta Sugar Beet Growers president Arnie Bergen-Henengouwen speaks to participants of recent field tour.That was the positive message the Alberta Sugar Beet Growers (ASBG) and Lantic Sugar wanted attendees on their recent annual field and factory tour to take home with them at the end of the day.

“It’s a good working relationship,” Lantic Sugar Taber chief of operations Andrew Llewelyn-Jones confirmed, “and I believe that current situation we have today is one of the best relationships we have had for a long time.

“We don’t achieve anything unless we work very closely together. Yes, we have differences, and those will always be there. But we find a way to navigate through that.

“I think the co-operative nature (of our relationship with growers) and the fact we are looking at rolling contracts going forward is a big plus for this industry, which we haven’t had before,” he added just before field and factory tour participants went off in groups for a guided tour of the factory.

“It allows growers to make the investments they need to make, and it allows us to make the investments we need to make here.”

ASBG board member Gary Vucurevich’s family has been farming sugar beets since 1939 in the Coaldale area. His family farm was another stop on the field and factory tour.

Harvest was in full force when tour participants arrived on site with the defoliator cutting the tops off beets on one side of the field while the harvester pulled the root vegetable up from the ground on the other side.

This time of year, said Vucurevich, they go almost 24 hours a day to get done. Three hundred acres of beets takes a long time to harvest when you have to harvest in two stages and travel at about three miles an hour.

“Our harvester is 11 feet wide, and we go about three miles per hour,” he said. “So if we can do 20-25 acres in a day the way it is yielding this year, then it is probably all we’re going to get done.”

Vucurevich admitted the Alberta sugar beet industry has seen a lot of ups and downs over the years, either due to weather wrecks or processing inefficiencies. But the potential for the future was truly exciting, he said.

“A lot of folks think we have almost reached the physiological limit for the amount of sugar in the beets, that 25 per cent sugar is maybe a maximum,” he said. “I have been hearing that for the past 10 years. I would expect (going forward) small improvements in quality but also small improvements in yield.

“Over the past 10 years, we have probably seen a 25-per-cent yield increase so I would expect that to continue as biotech continues to advance and new technologies are available to plant breeders.”

Back on the bus, participants were given a few small samples to try: Two relatively new alcohol products by Alberta-based distiller Rig Hand. One called “Double Double,” an Irish cream type liqueur made completely from Alberta sugar beets; the other a rum-like drink called “Brum,” also made from sugar beets.

Also on the bus were field tour participants from the Lethbridge College culinary arts program, eager to get their hands on some sugar beets to try out in various locally inspired dishes.

It’s these kinds of opportunities and partnerships the Alberta Sugar Beet Growers are actively exploring, said ASBG executive director Melody Garner-Skiba.

“We need more Albertans to support our 200 local growers by buying locally-sourced sugar products,” said Garner-Skiba. “This is a unique industry in Canada, and the Lantic Sugar plant in Taber is the only one which is processing 100 per cent Canadian sugar grown right here on local farms.”

Because the southern Alberta sugar beet industry is so unique in Canada, explained Garner-Skiba, it has led to special recognition and market access under the new USMCA.

“We actually have a preferential tariff-rate-quota where we can ship about 20,000 tonnes (of Canadian produced beet sugar) into the States now,” she said.

Now if only local growers could actually open up more of the domestic sugar market, said Garner-Skiba, that would be an even bigger win.

Currently only about eight per cent of Canadian domestic sugar market is supplied by Canadian beet growers, with 92 per cent of all sugar being produced in Canada from imported cane. More Alberta-produced beet sugar could only benefit the Canadian sugar market as a whole, said Garner-Skiba.

“If Lantic wants to send (Canadian-processed sugar made from imported cane) outside of the TRQ (tariff-rate-quota) to the States, they have to pay $351 a tonne to export; that’s the tariff,” she explained. “You know what the U.S. guys got to pay to ship it up here? Thirty-one dollars a tonne. It’s negligible.

“We do not have a sugar policy in Canada; so it means we trade on the open market. But other countries aren’t like that — so it does put us at a bit of a competitive disadvantage.”


This article first appeared in the Lethbridge Herald on Oct. 24, 2018