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Published December 08 2010

Cloudy future for beet farmers

It’s been a banner year for sugar beet growers of the Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative – record harvests, soaring earnings, and a harvest virtually free of waste.

With a legal battle over the use of herbicide-resistant seeds dragging on, however, the trick will be keeping the good times going.

Minn-Dak’s leaders gave an overview of the robust 2010 crop before the co-op’s annual meeting in Fargo on Tuesday. The Wahpeton-based group’s growers harvested 3.1 million tons of sugar beets in 2010, taking in a record 27.1 tons per acre. That’s up sharply from the year before, when growers harvested 2 million tons at about 21 tons an acre.

And despite early concerns that yields would be too large to handle, growers were able to harvest beets from 99 percent of planted acres, up from 84 percent last year and 69 percent the year before.

“That’s about as good as it gets,” said Dave Roche, president and chief executive of the co-op. He said “near-perfect weather” during the fall harvest helped farmers take advantage of the big yield.

Those yields, combined with upward trending prices, made for an estimated $180 million in payments to co-op shareholder this year, Roche said, up from about $100 million in 2009.

But growers still face an uncertain future, thanks to an ongoing court and regulatory battle over Roundup Ready beets – crops genetically engineered to resist herbicides. A California judge banned the use of those beets earlier this year in response to a lawsuit by organic farmers and environmental groups who say genetically modified beets can cause a host of environmental problems.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to wrangle in court over the issue and seek alternatives, but Roundup Ready beet seeds – which make up more than 95 percent of sugar beet crops – are currently illegal.

Doug Etten, chairman of the Minn-Dak board of directors, said the Roundup Ready issue remains “a tough one” for growers, who are stuck waiting to see if they can plant the modified crops or if they must use traditional seed. There also are questions about whether the latter would create seed shortages, given the popularity of Roundup Ready crops.

“It creates a lot of concern for our growers,” he said. “That’s all up in the air yet.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502