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Beet farmers trying to beat wet fields, cold conditions

Daryn Minske (left) and Levi Englund attempt to repair a beet lifter at a field five miles west of Ogema farmed by the Zurn family. (Jason Adkins/DL Newspapers)1 / 2
Eric Zurn was out in the tractor working the family beet field near Ogema on Friday morning. (Jason Adkins/DL Newspapers)2 / 2

Even with the wet weather this past week, one local beet farmer isn't worried about the current harvest. Not just yet, anyway.

Eric Zurn, who works on his family farm, has only been out in his beet field five miles west of Ogema for about 48 hours since the harvest began Sept. 30.

Oct. 1 is the usual start time, but after the first day in the fields, the rain came and didn't let up until Wednesday.

But this year's wet weather doesn't compare to last year's. Last year was the wettest and coldest season Zurn has seen.

"It was atrocious," he said.

Zurn said that his family's harvest didn't end until Nov. 5 of last year. Other area farmers weren't as fortunate, he said. Some lost a good portion of their harvest because of the cold temperatures.

Zurn said that he's able to harvest as long as it's not too wet. What's too wet, though, depends on a variety of factors.

The type of soil and how much moisture the soil retains. With freezing temperatures, beets can still be harvested, Zurn said. The temperature of the roots plays a factor in that situation.

"It always hard to tell, depending on the weather," said Dan Berhardson, director of agriculture for Moorhead-based American Crystal Sugar Co.

The cold early morning temperatures mean that farmers generally can't top the beets too far in advance of the lifters.

"We're telling them to put the toppers right in front of the harvester," Berhardson said.

Zurn's outlook for the rest of the season is optimistic, considering the start this year.

"People are hoping for a few more weeks in October and a week in November," Zurn said.

Not being able to be out in the fields can hurt more than just the harvest, Zurn said.

He said that he's lost good men because they can't be available for several weeks on end. There are a few full-time workers, but most are seasonal employees.

Zurn said that some use vacation time from their regular jobs to help out.

"People have their own businesses to run," Zurn said.

The delays this year have led to a 20 percent decrease in his numbers compared to this point in an average year, Zurn said.

American Crystal Sugar Company's co-op's total harvest is about 43 percent done, Berhardson said.

Last year's harvest started out strong, Berhardson said.

"We were harvesting for the first few days and then got rain," he said.

This year's crop looks good, if it can get harvested.

A warm September matured the beets more quickly than normal, Zurn said, since most farmers planted late in the spring because of wet fields.

"The more heat we have, the better the beets grow," he said.

When conditions are dry or warm enough, the harvest runs continuously. The Zurn farm is running two 12-hour shifts that start at 2 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The only slowdown on Friday morning for Zurn was having a beet lifter down -- he had two on hand at the start of the day -- and pulling semi truck that are filled from the lifter out of the mud.

One way or another, they get it done.

"We just attack through it," Zurn said.