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Conditions good for sugar beets, says Michigan farm
Michigan Correspondent

LAKEVIEW, Mich. — Conditions so far this year have been just right for sugar beets in Montcalm County.

But Lakeview-area growers Ken and Chris Rader say it’s too soon to declare planting a victory.

The father-son duo, who farm about 2,000 acres together with the help of one employee, finished planting their 175 acres of sugar beets on April 27. Now they’re waiting for them to emerge.

“They’re just starting to pop up,” Chris said. “We’ve had a nice soft rain. They like that.”

Relatively new to the business of raising sugar beets, the Raders said this year has been a lot easier on them than when they were first-time growers about seven years ago.

“The very first year we planted, we had to replant one field three times,” Chris said.

He said sugar beets “are really touchy to come out of the ground. Beets don’t want a pounding rain. The wind can do a lot of damage, too.

Ken said one of the problems their first year was that they received a hard rain right after they were planted.

“Once you get a little crust on the ground they don’t want to come through,” he said. “They’re a bugger to get up, there’s just no two ways about it.”

“When the wind blows it will pull them right out of the ground and twist them off just below the leaves. They call it helicoptering,” Ken said.

Michigan’s weather, although a bit on the dry side in the Rader’s neighborhood, otherwise has been close to ideal for the emerging plants.

That’s good news to the Raders who are optimistic that the sugar market will be favorable for growers this year.

“I’m really concerned about the future of the beet industry,” Ken said. “Right now the price of sugar is high, but if these trade agreements go through the U.S. sugar industry will just be done as far as I can see.

“If they keep the restrictions on so our price is a little better, we might have a couple of good years,” he said. “They’ve used up most of the sugar in government storage so there’s potential for a good price.”

That would be different than last year’s crop, on which Ken said they received only two-thirds of the payment they were owed. The Raders are members of the farmer-owned Michigan Sugar Cooperative based in Saginaw.

“December and January was warm rain instead of snow and the piles just kind of rotted,” he said. “We got our first payment and that was it. A lot of guys are still recovering from that.”

Growing sugar beets is a pretty substantial investment - about $450 to $550 per acre depending on weed control costs and whether the crop has to be replanted.

“Weed control is a challenge,” Chris said. “Our chemical bill is outrageous.”

He said one year they hired migrant workers to pull weeds.

“Otherwise we do a lot of spraying and cultivating,” he said.

With all the challenges why are they still growing sugar beets instead of just falling back on their other crops of corn, wheat, soybeans and dry edible beans?

“We got out of potatoes” a few years ago, Chris said. “We only raised about 150 acres and we didn’t have any storage. When we got out of it we were looking for another crop to raise.”

“Basically the sugar company came to us a few years ago and said they wanted to try some beets under irrigation,” Ken said.

However, the Raders are just one of a handful of Montcalm County farmers still growing sugar beets.

“There’s not too many of us left,” Chris said. “But when you own stock in the company you either have to grow them or find someone to grow them.”

A primary change to this year’s harvest will be that the Raders and other producers in the area won’t have to haul their own beets to a piling ground. In the past the Raders have hauled into Greenville, which was about a 45-mile round trip.

Instead the sugar cooperative will be sending a crew to pick them up.

“They’ll bring in a mouse (loader) and trucks. We’ll pile the beets on the headland and they’ll pick them up. We don’t have to worry about hauling trucks down the road,” Chris said.

“We’re hoping we can dig a little earlier and we won’t have to worry about when the plant opens or closes,” he said.

“It might be slightly more expensive (to have them hauled) but it will save on the wear and tear on our equipment,” Chris said.

Ken agreed.

“I would do it even if it is a little more expensive because it would keep our trucks off the road. It’s less to worry about,” Ken said.

This farm news was published in the May 10, 2006 issue of Farm World.