By Scott Schmidt
Alberta Newspaper Group
In what could be the worst year for local beet farmers in at least a decade, sugar processor Lantic Inc. has announced the termination of the 2019 harvest due to “recent severe adverse weather.”
The company released a statement last week to say that frost will prevent the proper storage and processing of sugar beets, leaving the estimated final quantity of refined sugar topping out at 70,000 metric tonnes — it had contracted to provide nearly double that. According to a local farmer, the loss is hitting everyone, and for some, up to 50 per cent of their crop is still in the ground.
It will now remain there to rot.
“This is probably the biggest loss that growers and Lantic have had since 2009,” Steve Wikkerink, Forty Mile Reeve and longtime sugar beet farmer, said last week after hearing the news. “Ninety-nine per cent of what’s in the ground now will stay in the ground to rot.”
Lantic contracts nearly 30,000 acres of sugar beet crops in the region, which Wikkerink says keeps them processing right through January. The problem is, the system only works when beets can store long enough to be processed — and frost drastically hinders the plan.
While a good beet can store for months, a beet with frost damage will last a matter of days.
“You put them in the pile and within about five days, if you’re lucky, they just go to mush,” Wikkerink said. “But in most cases they start to rot, which creates heat, which then creates rotting around that beet, and so on until your whole pile is rotten.”
Wikkerink says Lantic processes about 6,000 tonnes a day, and to put that in perspective, he roughly estimated that 900,000 tonnes of frost-damaged beets could be left out in the ground to serve as fertilizer in the fields.
Insurance will lessen the blow for many farmers — though Wikkerink suggested there are some not covered at all — but even that doesn’t make up for an entire year’s revenue, as policies only cover a certain yield, and anything grown beyond the insured tonnage is a gamble for profit, or losses.
Farmers are able to insure up to 90 per cent of their average annual yield, but if 2019 was shaping up to be a big year, Wikkerink says uninsured profits could easily reach $500 an acre, and that potential income simply rots with the beets.
Consumers shouldn’t be affected, the company says, as sugar refineries in other parts of the country will be able to handle supplying the demand.
“This decision was made following an exhaustive analysis by the Alberta Sugar Beet Growers and the Corporation, which jointly determined that severe snow and frost damage has resulted in an inability to store or process the unharvested damaged sugar beet crop,” a Lantic release states. “The Corporation is currently reviewing all available options to service its customers, one of which will include the supply of cane sugar from the Vancouver and Montréal refineries, which both have excess capacity.”
It’s not just beet growers that are feeling the sting of early frost this year.
“We helped a neighbour (last week) finish combining beans, and I know of some other beans that are still in the field,” Wikkerink says. “Potato growers of southern Alberta, they had to plow a bunch down this year because they’re frosted.
“This was a real tough fall on the farming community.”