Agriculture, Sustainability January 01, 2024
A Sweet Spot
Wyoming farmers work together to keep mortgage-making sugar beets in their rotation.
In summer 2001, lush green leaves plump with Big Horn river irrigation water fanned toward the sun—just as they had the 85 crop years prior. What should have been another sweet harvest for Worland, Wyo., sugar beet growers was uprooted when Imperial Sugar Co. announced bankruptcy and the closing of the Worland processing facility.
"We knew we weren't getting paid anything for that crop if we didn't do something," says John Snyder, Wyoming Sugar Company (WSC) board member and fourth-generation area grower.
Unwilling to let a crop rot in the field, area growers banded together to find a way forward.
They traded what they were owed by Imperial for their crop for a year's use of the facility. They processed and marketed the crop themselves, recouping their investment. It was mostly a wash, but it headed off a devastating loss and bought time.
Losing their highest value crop wasn't a reality generations-deep sugar beet growers would accept.
"We have warm days, cool nights, water, and good harvest and storage conditions," says Tom Clark, WSC board chair. It's the right crop in the right place and it pays well. "We call sugar beets the 'mortgage maker' crop."
Year in and year out, profits made from the specialty crop contributed to the financial health of the farmers and their community.
Buying in. Taking over the processing facility was the clear path forward. Cash flow was a problem. The farmers didn't have it, but rural America is strong in community. They offered stock in the venture, and their friends and neighbors—downtown businesses, landlords, and individuals—put their money on the line, too.
"I was meeting with the accountant when a local guy, a retired maintenance man at the school, came in," Snyder says. "He was diabetic and in a wheelchair. He said, 'Where do I buy stock in this sugar company? I know this community can't afford to lose it.' Everyone really banded together."
The processing facility was purchased and the tradition of beet production in the basin—one dating back to 1905—lived on.
Over the years, WSC bought out non-grower investors. The community was repaid and beyond with returns. By 2009, WSC was fully grower-owned, a measure critical for continued success.
"The factory needs to process a certain throughput of beets every year. There's overhead to be covered," says Michael Greear, WSC president. A right and obligation-style co-op ensures adequate acreage is dedicated to the crop.
Each co-op member and shareholder has the right to have their sugar beets processed at the facility. They also have the obligation to produce the acreage of sugar beets equal to their shares.
"When corn prices are through the roof, we still need sugar beets grown," Greear says. The co-op structure ensures that.
Taking on the factory means more profit, generally, for growers. It also brings risk and new challenges. When hurricane Katrina sent natural gas prices skyrocketing, they had to make the tough decision to stop pelletizing and marketing beet pulp byproduct.
Instead, pressed pulp was returned to the growers for a time. Wasting the high-protein byproduct lacked appeal for most.
"People started feeding cattle in the area again," Greear says. As cattle backgrounding and conditioning grew up around the cheap feed source, demand for grain corn and silage grew, too.
With an established local feed market, WSC started charging for beet pulp—adding more income for their growers and protecting market value for their new rotation crops. "If you're creative, you can take a bad situation and turn it into an opportunity," Greear says. It's something these growers have done time and time again. ‡
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