By Tim Kalinowski
With the worst harvest in 40 years, Alberta sugar beet growers are taking stock of their losses, and trying to figure out what comes next.
“To not be able to finish the harvest is certainly a disappointment,” says Alberta Sugar Beet Growers Association president Arnie Bergen-Henengouwen.
“We put the seed in the ground with the full intention of completing a harvest, and when it is taken out of our control at the end is definitely a disappointment for the growers.
“In 2009 we left a percentage of a crop in the ground, but not as much as this. We had to leave 45 per cent in the ground this year.”
Bergen-Henengouwen says you would have to go all the way back to 1984 to see the last major wipeout like this.
“It was the multiple freezing events which did them in this year,” he says.
“We quite often we do get a cold weather events and the foliage on the beets will insulate and protect the root from -14 C or -15 C temperatures, but this year with the multiple events during the first heavy frost the canopy basically deteriorates to nothing and the insulation value is gone after that,” says Bergen-Henengouwen.
Growers did try to go out and do a controlled harvest, says Bergen-Henengouwen, but ultimately had to give it up as it became apparent what was left in the ground just wasn’t salvageable.
“The sugar quality went down, and after the second frost they were starting to rot in the ground,” Bergen-Henengouwen explains. “It makes it so we can’t store them. It’s like storing a frozen potato— if you get enough of a concentration of them in a pile, it can take a whole pile down.
“Initially the thought was we could go through controlled harvest for a short period of time, which we did. But the beets at this point wouldn’t store more than five days in the pile, and typically it takes months to process the harvest. Typically Lantic Sugar will process into February.”
Without being able to successfully store the several times frozen beets on the piles, the only thing producers could do is think about next steps, says Bergen-Henengouwen.
“There is crop insurance to offset some of it, but that will only cover most of the input costs,” he states. “But when we were actually anticipating a pretty good crop— we thought we would be harvest upward of 30 tonnes— that’s certainly not covered with the crop insurance.”
Next-year country and farming in Southern Alberta have become re-acquainted again in 2019 after several local ag industries were impacted heavily by miserable winter weather, which came unseasonably early after an already late start this past spring. Crop-killing storms also created widespread devastation on several farms in the region earlier this summer.
When Mother Nature goes haywire all you can do is focus on what you can control, says Bergen-Henengouwen.
“Our biggest concern now will be keeping that (Lantic) plant going,” he explains. “We want to maintain a reliable supply of sugar for the processor, for sure.”
Which will likely mean imported sugar cane filling the gap left behind by the hole punched right though the Southern Alberta sugar beet industry.
“After that,” says Bergen-Henengouwen, “there are a few growers out there who were planning to use that ground for potato ground next year; so in those field those beets had to be harvested anyway and removed from the field. For the rest of us, our thoughts in 2009 was we left them in the ground and we did get an opening in the weather in February or March and we worked them down. We disced them down, and that did work fairly well. In that case, it is fertilizer for the next crop.”
Arnie Bergen-Henengouwen says sugar beets are often harvested late because of the need to have cold enough temperatures to store the crop in beet piles to preserve them through the winter as the Lantic Sugar plant in Taber slowly works through what is there.
“History tells us Oct. 1 to end of October is best window to pile sugar beets,” he explains. “In order to maximize returns, it is a bit like playing a game of chicken with Mother Nature. This year Mother Nature did not flinch, and she really sucker punched us.”