Sugar beets aren’t the flashiest crop around and they don’t get a lot of headlines, but they have been paying the bills in Idaho for more than 100 years.
About 700 Idaho farmers annually grow roughly 180,000 acres of sugar beets, which are processed and turned into sugar. About 55 percent of the sugar produced in the United States comes from sugar beets.
Many farmers who grow sugar beets in Idaho also grow potatoes, Idaho’s most famous commodity, which garners far more headlines than sugar beets do.
As an example, after last year’s early October cold snap, there were plenty of stories written about how it impacted the state’s spud crop but not so many about how it affected sugar beets.
Hazelton sugar beet farmer Randy Grant said he has no problem with the relative lack of attention the crop receives from the general public and media.
“It’s not a big deal that we’re under the radar,” he said. “We don’t need to be potatoes or another crop. We just need to be the humble beet that pays the bills.”
Sugar beets have been grown in Idaho since the early 1900s.
“They’ve been paying the bills for generations,” said Grant, president of the Idaho Sugarbeet Growers Association’s board of directors. “Many generations of farmers in Idaho have grown up growing sugar beets.”
Sugar beets may not be the flashiest crop around but they are very reliable when it comes to bringing a stable return on investment to farmers who grow them, said ISGA Executive Director Brad Griff.
Part of the reason for that is the federal sugar program, which controls how much sugar is allowed to be imported into the United States, depending on how much sugar is produced domestically.
If U.S. sugar beet and cane farmers produce a lot of sugar in a given year, fewer imports are allowed into the country. If they produce less, more sugar is allowed into the country.
As a result, “We basically know what the price will be within a reasonable range,” Griff said. “It’s a very reliable crop and the price is very stable.”
Idaho’s sugar beet farmers own Amalgamated Sugar Co., which operates three plants in Idaho – in Paul, Twin Falls and Nampa – where the beets are processed into sugar.
Amalgamated is a $1 billion company, and about 1,600 employees work in the processing facilities.
Including the roughly $300 million in farm cash receipts that sugar beet farmers bring in each year, the crop has a major impact on the state’s economy and underpins many rural economies.
When the secondary impacts of the industry are added in, such as the trucking and other side businesses that support the industry, the impact the crop has on Idaho is very significant, said Mike Garner, a sugar beet farmer from Raft River who is chairman of the Snake River Sugar Co.’s board of directors.
“Sugar beets generate a lot of revenue in Idaho and there is a lot of trickle-down effect as well,” he said. “A lot of families, a lot of people, depend on that crop in Idaho.”
Sugar beets have been an attractive option for Idaho farmers for a long time, Garner said.
“It shows positive returns per acre very consistently, and good returns,” he said. “It’s been a very solid crop in the state for many, many years.”
New Plymouth sugar beet farmer Galen Lee said another reason that sugar beet prices have been relatively stable over
the years is that sugar beet growers own shares in the cooperative that owns Amalgamated. Those shares obligate a farmer to grow a certain number of acres each year.
“You can’t jump in and out of sugar beets, which results in a pretty stable market,” said Lee, a member of Idaho Farm Bureau Federation’s board of directors. “They provide a stable return year in and year out.”
“It’s a very stable crop in the type of row-crop farming we have here in southern Idaho,” said Grant. “They’re pretty stable year in and year out so you can look ahead and put a budget together because you know the prices are going to be in a range that is usually profitable.”
Despite the important role sugar beets play in Idaho’s economy and the state’s agricultural industry, many if not most Idahoans have little to no idea what a sugar beet is.
“A lot of people, when you tell them you’re a sugar beet farmer, they think the red table beet that you buy in the store,” Grant said. “You don’t eat them; you process them into sugar.”
An average sugar beet produces about one cup of sugar, as well as 2.4 ounces of beet pulp, which is a good feed source for cattle.
Because you don’t buy sugar beets in a store, “A lot of times, people don’t know that sugar comes from sugar beets,” Griff said.
Many Idahoans’ first introduction to a sugar beet is seeing one laying on the road after getting bumped off one of the trucks that haul 7 million tons of beets to the state’s three processing facilities each year.
“Little do they know that one of those beets will make about one cup of sugar,” Lee said.
The crop’s public profile got a boost this past New Year’s Eve when a giant, two-story tall sugar beet was slowly lowered in Rupert’s town square on midnight to ring in the new year.
“That is pretty unique in the country and probably the world, too,” Lee said. “It shows the community support that sugar beets have and how important they are to many rural areas in southern Idaho.”
While the general public is collectively clueless about sugar beets, the rural communities that grow them understand them well, Griff said.
“They play a huge part in many rural communities around the United States and especially here in Idaho,” he said. “We’re definitely a little under the radar, which we’re fine with because sugar beets pay the mortgage in farm country.”