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Sugar beet growers warned about possible need to destroy crop in field

MOORHEAD -- American Crystal Sugar Co. for the third year in a row has warned growers they may need to destroy some beets in the field to prevent storage losses in an excessively long processing campaign.

David Berg, Crystal's president and chief executive officer, confirmed to the Herald that members last Friday received letters warning them to be prepared, even after the co-op already cut back beet plantings in 2008 by nearly 15 percent.

In the letter, Berg didn't announce when the company will make a final decision. "We have to do it by the start of the stockpile," Berg said, referring to the full-scale harvest that still is scheduled to begin Oct. 1. The board holds a regular meeting Sept. 24 and could make a decision then. Crystal has plants in Moorhead, East Grand Forks and Crookston in Minnesota and in Drayton and Hillsboro, N.D.

Crystal's board in March 2008 decided to cut plantings for 2008 after two consecutive years of larger-than-expected crops.

In 2006, the co-op at first announced a 10 percent "earmark" but growers ended up destroying 8 percent. In 2007, the co-op warned of 15 percent potential plow-down, cut it to 10 percent, then to 5 percent and then none at all.

In 2008, the co-op board allowed members to plant 81 percent to 85 percent of their stock acres. In the end, about 84.5 percent of stock acres were planted, for a harvest of about 420,000 acres, compared to stock acres of 498,570. The unusual member who planted the smaller end of that range will receive credit for that voluntary reduction in the event field destruction occurs.

An increase in the projected yield by two to three tons per acre wouldn't necessarily offset the 15 percent planting reduction in 2008, but there are other factors involved.

Last year, Crystal started its pre-pile campaign Aug. 22 to accommodate a potential whopper of a crop. This year, the pre-pile slice started Sept. 5, but was interrupted by some weather problems and down time in one factory.

Berg said the company didn't start that earlier this year because "we didn't think there was that tonnage out there." Berg acknowledged that Crystal's official yield projection is at 23.2 tons per acre, but he noted that more recent, ongoing sampling is "giving us bigger numbers, up to 26 tons" per acre.

"If that's sitting there, with the rains we've had in the last few weeks, and then sunny and warm, they're still growing. For us not to at least warn them is really irresponsible," Berg said, acknowledging growers may identify poorer beets for possible destruction later in the season.

He said it would be "painful" to keep any part of the crop in the ground, but it makes more sense to do that than to spend money on disposal for excessive beets put in piles.

In the past three weeks, many farmers in the Crystal region have received six to 11 inches of rain. "You know what that does -- it just pumps up those beets," he said.

Berg underlined that the possible destruction is not related to any "allocation situation," in which companies are limited in their sugar marketings, according to provisions of the 2002 farm bill.