Sugar Beets: The ultimate prairie specialty crop
Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer
Beet farmers fill a very specific niche in agriculture in Alberta. With a farming industry increasingly moving into specialty crops to increase profits for producers, sugar beets might just be the ultimate specialty crop.
Ron Wikkerink of Wikkerink Farms Ltd. farms with his brothers Steve and Dan just north of Bow Island. The Wikkerinks have been growing beets as part of their crop rotation for over 40 years. Unlike other types of crops grown to be marketed to buyers across North America, Wikkerink Farms only has one buyer for it beets—Lantic Sugar, formerly known as Roger’s, in Taber, Alberta. A new contract between the company and local beet farmers has to be renegotiated every few years; a fact which can add an element of uncertainty to the Wikkerink family’s farm operations.
“Lantic is the only one that contracts sugar beets. It is a little bit tricky to make a contract every couple of years because there is not a lot of competition. So there is no leverage (on Lantic) as far as that goes. But it is a benefit for them for us to grow our beets too. As long as we are making money and they are making money everyone can find some middle ground where everyone is happy. Or pretty close to happy, anyways,” says Wikkerink with a chuckle.
Unlike most crops which get priced on both quality and volume produced, there is only one standard which applies to sugar beets.
“The contract is based on sugar content. The more sugar you have in your beets the more you get paid,” Wikkerink states flatly.
So how do you ensure a high level of sugar content in your beets? It comes down to your farming practices as well as your luck, says Wikkerink.
“You need a really thick stand; that’s one thing. It almost seems to a certain extent the thicker the better. The more you can get into a row generally the sugar content is better. Fertility plays a huge part too. If you have high nitrogen levels than that is generally bad for the sugar content. The beets almost have to deplete the nitrogen completely out of the soil to get really good sugar content… You plant the seeds in rows with a crop planter. The rows are 22 inches apart, and we plant each seed five and a half inches apart. That’s ideal. They are a little finicky to get going because they are not a tough plant. We try to seed them quite shallow; about an inch is as deep as you want to plant them. They also need a lot of moisture to germinate.”
Wikkerink says his biggest enemy is wind; especially early in the growing cycle before the beets have had a chance to take hold.
“The wind can be quite a challenge when you are growing beets,” confirms Wikkerink. “You get a strong wind blowing early in the growing cycle and it sucks the moisture out and can blow the seed away. A lot of people used to plough when planting beets. We don’t plough anymore and we leave quite a bit of trash on top so it’s not quite as much of an issue. And once they are started, it’s pretty tough to kill them.”
Once the beets are established even a major hailstorm will probably not kill the plants completely.
“It’s a root crop, so I know from our perspective it does kind of spread the risk around a little bit,” explains Wikkerink. “Generally when everything else gets wiped out, the hail will defoliate the beet plants but they just grow right back from the roots.”
Harvest can be another challenge for a beet grower. Slow and steady is usually the mantra as custom diggers go through at about three miles per hour.
“Everyone uses a pretty similar type of digger,” says Wikkerink. “It’s like steel wheels that are angled to cut through the dirt and pinch at the back. It then kind of lifts up the dirt and beets and everything altogether. There is a kind of paddle that knocks them into the back and grab rows that clean the dirt out. The beets are probably six or seven inches in diameter; so they are fairly big. The soil is generally fairly moist; the wetter it is the tougher it is to get the dirt separated from them. There is actually a separate machine which cuts the leaves off first. Then the digger picks them, cleans them off and conveys them into the truck.”
On Wikkerink Farms Ltd. they usually get about 25 tons worth of beets for every acre and that keeps the farm’s truckers hopping.
Wikkerink says beets really have to be grown in rotation with other crops, especially because his family farm has relatively few acres; only 3,000 acres. On the plus side they do have irrigation on all their land and can grow a wider variety of crops than many.
“Beets are good in rotation,” explains Wikkerink. “You can only grow them once every four years on a particular quarter because you get disease issues. So it actually fits in nice with growing beans and grain in rotation with them. Our standard rotation is beets and then either wheat or durum and then beans and then wheat or durum and then beets again.”
Wikkerink says he still loves the beet business after all these years despite the challenges.
“I still really like it. Farming in general always has its challenges but being diversified as we are, with growing a number of different crops, every year you hope there is at least one that does well. And that sort of protects you risk-wise if the price drops in, say, grain and the beets are a little more stable at the same time.”