Harvest one of the sweetest ever for southern Alberta beet growers

Not final Grower returns will still depend on storage risks and the market price for sugar

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The sugar beet harvest is winding up and it looks like it might be one of the best ever for Alberta’s beet farmers and the Rogers Sugar plant (Lantic Inc.) in Taber.

“The beets we’ve processed so far are really good quality,” said Andrew Llewelyn-Jones, agricultural superintendent for Rogers Sugar. “Sugar content is as good as our best-ever crop. And, the tonnage is good too. I think we’re close to record tonnage.”

The good harvest is due to a combination of things, according to Llewelyn-Jones. The weather played a big part, but advances in plant breeding help too as beet growers have been using Roundup Ready beets for the last few years and the simpler, more effective weed control has made a difference.

“Our farmers are becoming better and better growers all the time,” said Llewelyn-Jones. “Good management and the early planting date have helped us get such a good harvest this year, but at the end of the day, you need a good slice of luck for a good crop and we seem to have had that this year.”

Llewelyn-Jones expects a total harvest of around 800,000 tonnes of beets from about 30,000 acres, almost 27 tonnes per acre. Early sugar yields have been close to 19.5 per cent, better than the long-term average of 18.5 per cent. The amount of sugar the factory can actually extract depends mainly on storage conditions, but things look good for this year. “I’m happy with the way things have gone so far this year,” said Llewelyn-Jones. “I hope we can generate good returns for our farmers as well as the company.”

Growers still face risk

Beet growers are pleased with the crop, but they have some reservations. “We’ve delivered probably the best crop ever produced in southern Alberta,” said Gerald Third, executive director of the Alberta Sugar Beet Growers. “Three-quarters of the way through the sugar production cycle we’re cautiously optimistic that our growers will see the best returns they’ve had in 25 years. But, there’s still lots of stuff can go wrong and the growers have no control over,” he said.

“The production cycle includes seeding to harvest, delivery, storage and processing. We have absolutely no control once the beets are delivered, but we still own them and carry 100 per cent of the risk until the sugar is in the bin.”

The returns to farmers are a combination of beet tonnage, the sugar extracted and the world price of sugar. But, stored beets can respire and lose sugar or even rot.

Beet harvest started Sept. 19 with a limited early harvest to start the factory, which limits harvest to the amount of beets it can use immediately to avoid losing sugar as stored beets respire. Once the snow and freezing temperatures arrived in the fourth week of October, most of the beets had been piled at receiving stations that pile beets 24 hours a day.

Beet acreage fluctuates as growers opt for other special crops, but this year’s harvest with its high sugar content could take the factory closer to its 150,000 tonnes of sugar capacity. Last year, it produced about 121,000 tonnes of refined sugar, much better than the 86,000 and 64,000 tonnes in previous years. The company extracts and purifies sugar through the winter, storing refined sugar and packaging and shipping it throughout the year. Almost three-quarters of production is sold as white granulated sugar, with liquid sugar for beverage and other manufacturers making up most of the remaining sugar.

But, production is limited by domestic markets and competing production from beet growers in Central Canada and cane sugar refining. “The Canadian sugar market isn’t afraid to compete on a world market, but we are protected by anti-dumping laws and a tariff against sugar import from the U.S.,” said Llewelyn-jones. “So we’re limited in our potential to expand.”

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