Sugar economy improves for Montana farmers

Billings Gazette: Sugar economy improves for Montana farmers     By Tom Lutey


There’s a spoonful of the good news for farmers facing low prices: Crop quality is pretty sweet.


Montana sugar producers report more tons per acre and better sugar content in beets than average. Both are key ingredients for buoying farm profits in a year when sugar prices still lack the economic sweetness of the three-year period starting in 2009 when prices were high.


Futures prices for sugar delivered to U.S. commercial buyers in 10 months were at $24.75 a pound Tuesday.


Farmers should be receiving roughly $40 a ton for their beets this year. The extra tons per acre should help. The sugar industry contributes about $70 million a year to Montana’s economy.


“We raised our estimate two tons per acre to 33 tons,” said Russ Fulmer of Sidney Sugars in Sidney.


The temperatures this summer favored sugar beet farmers, Fulmer said. At one point, yield was increasing about three tons a week for farms growing beets for Sidney Sugars.


Farmers in far Eastern Montana will begin harvesting Sept. 28. Sugar content is expected to be 18 percent.


In the Billings area, farmers started harvesting beets Sept. 2 on a select basis, collecting just enough beets to keep the Western Sugar Cooperative factory in Billings running, but avoiding spoilage by not piling the beets for long.


Western told The Gazette earlier that it expected its yield to be above 30 tons but shy of last year’s record.


The yield and good sugar content will make the difference for farmers, said Gary Brester, a Montana State University economist.


“In general, the Montana and Wyoming beet price is going to be, let’s just call it solid, not spectacular,” Brester said. “It might depend on sugar content, but people are looking at low $40 a ton. Is $50 a ton better? Yeah. Is $30 lower? Yeah.”


Prices are showing improvement as an agreement preventing Mexico from dumping sugar in the United States market solidifies. U.S. sugar cane and sugar beet farmers have made a case for limiting imported sugar into the United States, so long as there was enough domestic sugar available to meet demand.


“The simple answer is the trade cases and suspension agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments” have helped prices, said Luther Markwart of the American Sugarbeet Growers. “That is what has returned the market to a more balanced supply and demand situation.”


U.S farmers also cut back on acres planted with sugar beets. Nationally, farmers planted 19,000 fewer acres of beets.

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