The sugar beet harvest in Northern Colorado was a little late getting started this year. Scheduled to begin October 9, it didn’t get underway until the early morning hours of October 15, and then only on a limited basis.
The first evidence that the “campaign” had begun at the beet storage dump north and west of Wellington on County Road 9 was a small but steadily growing pile of beets automatically deposited by a machine that accepts truckload after truckload of beets and removes the dirt clinging to them before depositing the beets into a pile that can grow to be 20 feet tall, 180 feet wide and several hundred feet long.
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That can take up to six weeks depending on the weather. Despite a high degree of automation that makes the process incredibly efficient, beet farmers and processors are at the mercy of Mother Nature. It was the warm temperatures in early October that caused the delay in the harvesting process. The beets and the farmers were ready, but weren’t able to begin until they could be sure that the beets could be safely stored. If they’re piled up when it’s warmer than 60 degrees, they are likely to lose sugar content and rot before they can be delivered to processing plants, often as late as February.
“We’re starting with limited harvesting,” agriculturist Sue Inness explained. “We’ll run from 6 to 11 a.m. on the first day and count on the weather report that says things are going to cool down.” An employee of Western Sugar, Inness has been working with beet farmers for several decades and oversees several harvesting operations in the area.
Georgia Evans, who oversees the Wellington site, explained that Western Sugar contracts with area farmers to process their beets. The farmers are members of a co-op that owns Western Sugar, the company that buys and processes the beets and markets the final product. The growing pile on County Road 9 is known as a swing pile because it could be sent to factories in either Fort Morgan or Torrington, Wyoming to undergo the process that will transform the beets into the familiar packages of GW Sugar found on grocery shelves in all 50 states.
Richard Seaworth was on hand to observe the opening hours of harvesting and also to describe the digging process underway at his farm about a mile away. His son Troy, at the helm of an enormous satellite driven-tractor, was keeping an eye on the mechanism that lifts the beets from the ground, gets rid of the dirt clinging to them and channels them into a nearby truck. In a matter of minutes, the beets had been transported to the dump, weighed in, sampled for sugar content and shuttled into the growing pile to await processing.
Seaworth explains that the beets are planted precisely 4.2 inches apart, grown from tiny seeds coated with material that protects them and encourages early growth. A single pound of seed can plant an entire acre and yield 30 tons or more of beets.
“This season looks like it may be our best yet,” Seaworth said. A wet May and a warm September have contributed to high sugar content, the measurement by which growers are paid for their beets.
Gail Meisner, who figures she was about seven when she first drove a sugar beet truck through a field, operates the scale house, the first stop when a load of beets arrives at the site. Computers have streamlined her tasks, but she still spends long hours checking in loaded trucks, making sure all the pertinent information is recorded, and weighing the trucks again before they leave the field.
At the height of the harvesting season, she checks in and out as many as 280 trucks in a day. “Last season we worked from 3:30 a.m. until it got too warm in the afternoon, for 27 days straight,” she said. “The last three days we worked 17-hour shifts without a break.”
But Meisner’s not complaining. It’s obvious that she likes the work she’s done for six years and enjoys the interaction with the farmers and truck drivers. She has a special smile for Chad Schmidtberger who hauls in a truckload of beets from her family farm, now owned by she and her sister. She’s proud of the fact that beets from her fields, now farmed by Dale Sipes, earned him an award for having the second highest sugar content in his beets for the entire state last year. On the side, Meisner runs a snack concession out of the scale house, meeting the needs of hungry truckers with burritos, krautbergers, drinks and snacks.
Typical of so many of the beet farmers, she comes from a family who has been raising beets in the area for more than a half century. It’s in her blood. Her commitment to agriculture extends to her work as chair of the Larimer County Ag Advisory Board and president of both the Larimer County Farmers Union and the Bee Family Farm Museum.
Beet farming in Colorado has a past that goes back to 1869. The first factory was was founded in Grand Junction in 1899 and by 1906 there were factories in Loveland, Greeley, Eaton, Fort Collins, Longmont, Windsor, Sterling, Fort Morgan and Brush. By 1985 processor Great Western Sugar had gone bankrupt and laid off 350 people. It was replaced by Western Sugar and that company was bought by more than 1,000 beet growers in 2002. Its headquarters are in Denver and five refineries are located in Fort Morgan, Scottsbluff, Nebraska, Torrington and Lovell, Wyoming and Billings, Montana.
Beet farming brought many families to the Northern Colorado area, most noticeably the “Germans from Russia” who came to work in the fields and factories in the early part of the twentieth century. Their heritage lives on in the beet fields surrounding the Wellington area and in the farming families who have embraced new technology and remain committed to providing a product essential to the American food supply.