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Community, workers 'shocked' by impending closure of historic Sidney sugar beet factory

A sugar beet in a field
Peggy Greb
A long-running sugar beet processing factory in Sidney, Montana, will close later this year.

This week’s announcement that a century-old sugar beet factory in eastern Montana will close later this year has left community members there reeling.

Sidney Sugars factory worker Samree Reynolds says owners gathered employees Monday morning and shared the decision.

“Of course, I’m sitting in there, just shocked,” she said.

Reynolds lives in Savage, south of Sidney, and has worked at the factory for more than 25 years.

“And we looked after each other,” she said. “I’m going to miss that.”

Minnesota-based ag cooperative American Crystal Sugar Company bought the facility in 2002 and said in a news release announcing the closure that "due to an ongoing insufficient supply of sugar beets from the local growers," the operation is no longer financially sustainable.

According to the company, contracts with local growers fell from 45,000 acres in the 1990s to about 18,000 acres last year.

A statement from local beet growers indicates long-running contract disagreements. The Montana-Dakota Beet Growers Association says it's "disappointed" in the decision to close the factory.

"The growers of our association have made every attempt to keep Sidney Sugars a viable operation," the board wrote in its statement.

Fourth-generation beet farmer Sarah Degn of Fresh Hopped Farm says she’s in shock at news of the closure.

“The finality of it is still sinking in, I think,” Degn said.

Degn says she returned to the area to farm full-time when her dad decided to retire about five years ago. She says in addition to planting beets in years past, she’s added other crops like corn, and her farm supplies a couple of breweries with hops.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than half of sugar in the U.S. comes from sugar beets, and farmers bring in roughly $1 billion annually, depending on the year.

Richland Economic Development Corporation executive director Leslie Messer says the Sidney factory generates millions of dollars for local economies and hundreds of thousands of dollars in property and corporate taxes.

Like Sarah Degn, Messer is from several generations of local farmers and calls the closure announcement heartbreaking.

“My family members have planted sugar beets and worked within the factory over the years, so it’s been a pivotal part of not only the Yellowstone Valley, but also the heritage of the family and the area,” she said.

American Crystal Sugar Company says the factory typically employs about 300 people. Processing of the last crop ended in December, but cleanup work will continue through the spring; operations will begin to shut down on April 14, and the warehouse will operate through the summer.

In a statement following the announcement, Rep. Matt Rosendale said the closure will "certainly be a detriment to our entire region.

"I am hopeful that this will not be a permanent closure and production can continue in the future," he said.

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.