Steinbeisser Discusses Being In And Getting Out Of The Sugar Beet Industry


February 22, 2023 | View PDF

Harvesting sugar beets. (File photo)

Don Steinbeisser Jr.'s farm has been in his family since the 1930s, and for nearly all of his life, 900 of his 3,000 irrigated acres were dedicated to growing sugar beets. That all changed in 2022.

"Sidney Sugars made it so it wasn't profitable. Yes, you can make money growing sugar beets, but you can't afford to replace equipment," he explained. "When Holly Sugar and Imperial Sugar owned the factory, they upgraded it to make it bigger and better so we could process more beets, but all that stopped as soon as American Crystal Sugar bought it. Every year since they've owned the factory they have tried to take money away from the growers, and every contract except one, they did. They've taken over $9 a ton away from sugar beet growers."

Steinbeisser grows barley, alfalfa, and soybeans, but has focused on expanding corn production which currently takes up 1,700 to 1,800 acres.

"We knew there was a demand for corn, but we didn't realize how strong it was, especially in Canada and the West Billings area. Last year we paid $8 for corn and we grew enough for our cattle plus had a cash flow from it. Feedlots can use higher moisture corn, so we can store it at 19/20 moisture into August," he said.

When asked how growing corn for silage compared to growing sugar beets in terms of cost and equipment, Steinbeisser's answer was "cheap".

"Corn is a more cost-effective crop. Sugar beets are an expensive crop to grow, and growers have several million dollars into their equipment. I use the same tractors as I did growing sugar beets, but I need less of them and I'm putting 300 to 400 hours less on them in a season, so the machinery lasts longer." He went on to say, "Finding beet truck drivers was also getting harder. We were bringing people in from Oregon who were here on their vacation time from regular jobs. They'd get here, and Sidney Sugars would decide that we weren't going to start for another week and all that time would be lost. If you think it was hard to find the first 12 to 14 truck drivers, it was even harder to find the next 12 to 14. You still have to work hard to raise other crops, but your days are shorter and planting isn't as finicky, so you're not as rushed. Life has gotten simpler, not a lot, but some."

He noted that the biggest change has been on the office end. Rather than taking beets to the factory and getting a check in November, he has to pay attention to the market, and address contracting and delivery.

"Economically, the biggest switch was timing. Instead of getting a lump sum of money, it's spread out in smaller amounts throughout the season."

In addition to spending his life as a sugar beet grower, Steinbeisser also served as Beet Growers Association President and has spent plenty of time lobbying for the sugar industry.

Don Steinbeisser Jr. is a lifelong farmer who not only grew sugar beets, but was involved in lobbying for the sugar industry, and served as the president of the Montana-Dakota Beet Growers Association. (Photo by Meagan Dotson)

"Growers used to have a stake in how the sugar was sold. Holly Sugar was hugely proud of the Sidney factory because of the quality of the sugar and the number of beets produced. They were a part of this community, but all that ended when American Crystal Sugars bought it. They wanted nothing from the farmers except the beets," he stated. "American Crystal ran the factory until it wasn't cost effective, took all the money they could from it, and then closed it and tried to blame it on the growers. They had accountants running it who only knew about dry-land farming and they didn't want to listen to anyone about irrigated sugar beets. Jobs will be lost; taxes will be affected. American Crystal did not treat us fairly. Personally, it doesn't hurt me, but it hurts my community."

He credits sugar beet growers as some of the hardest working people who are very involved throughout their season, and believes most farmers will make it through the closure of Sidney Sugars.

"Agriculture will stay strong in this area because we have the irrigated valley with little water volume issues, the land, the people, and the knowledge. We just need to find a crop or company to come in and utilize the things this area offers," Steinbeisser concluded.


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