Sugarbeet farmers in Sidney evaluate future crop plans in light of factory closure
It’s a chilly morning in March, and 42-year-old Sarah Degn is calling over one of the barn cats that patrol for mice on the farm, where her parents still live.
"Come on, Myrtle!" Degn said. "Don’t get your feet muddy."
Degn is a fourth-generation beet farmer and a member of the state Farmers’ Union board. She moved back to Sidney a few years ago to help her dad on their roughly 800-acre farm full-time.
“He’s technically retired on paper,” she said. “But farmers never really retire, so there’s a lot of time, I’ll be sitting here having coffee, and I can hear the tractor start, and he’s driving off to spray ‘cause I didn’t get up early enough.”
The Degn family has been farming beets for the processing factory in town for around a hundred years, roughly as long as it’s been operating.
But in February, the plant’s owner, Minnesota-based cooperative American Crystal Sugar Company, announced the number of sugarbeet acres available in the area was too low to be profitable and it would begin closing the plant in April.
The factory had already processed the most recent and likely the last season of sugar beets.
"I mean, it wasn’t unexpected, but it was a little bit of a surprise," Degn said.
Now, some farmers like Degn and her father, who for years organized their planting cycles – and lives – around beets, are pivoting to other crops.
“In one sense, it’s really sad that the beets are gone," Sarah Degn said. "It’s like a family history that’s disappeared overnight.
"It’s gonna hurt the community, but on the other hand, I feel like we’ve gained back some more certainty."
A spokesperson for American Crystal Sugar said the company did not have further comment in response to YPR’s request for an interview.
Retired Montana State University agricultural economics professor Gary Brester says sugarbeets are a high-value crop that account for a small percentage of Montana’s total statewide production, “much behind alfalfa, hay and a couple of other crops and livestock products.”
According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the greatest density of northeastern Montana’s sugarbeet acres are clustered around the Sidney area.
Montana-Dakota Beet Growers Association president Jeff Bieber lives just over the border in North Dakota. He says he and his son farm about 1,600 acres between them, and around half were sugar beets.
“We were all in when it came to sugarbeets,” Bieber said.
He says every negotiation with the American Crystal Sugar Company resulted in lower pay and shorter contracts than were sustainable for farmers.
“We wanted to see a future in Sidney, Montana, and that just wasn’t there," he said.
Bieber says transporting crops to a local facility for processing is a necessity because sugar beets are prohibitively expensive and unwieldy to carry over large distances, which makes the Billings factory too far for Sidney farmers to consider.
Bieber says the foreseeable future will involve experimentation with alternative crops — like grains, soybeans, corn and alfalfa.
It's a perspective Sidney farmer Sarah Degn shares.
“This is the year to try things,” she said.
Back on her family farm, Degn says the transition away from sugarbeets includes a shift in how farmers think about their crops and planting schedules.
“For me it’s a little easier because I’ve only been back for five years," she said. "For my dad, who’s done this almost every year for 43 years, like, he’s admitted it feels very weird.”
The factory had been a one-stop shop for beet farmers like Sarah’s 69-year-old father, Mike.
“That was the nice thing about sugar,” he said. “We didn’t have to market it. We didn’t have to worry about storage. You just grew it, delivered it and then you got paid. And we always got paid.
"That’s the part we’ll really miss.”
Sarah Degn says she and her family are planning to plant canola, flax, soybeans, corn and wheat, with a few crops still unknown.
“It’s just all still evolving,” Degn said. “There’s a few fields, I don’t know if we’re going to know what we’re going to plant until the planter rolls with the seed in it. So, it’s kind of fun to play and it’s exciting, but also a little nerve-wracking.”
She says farmers have a couple of payments left through their contracts with the factory, giving them some financial cushion to experiment with what comes next.