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Beet growers sign up for Field to Market

MANVEL, N.D. – Casey Hoverson is proud of his family’s production of sugar beets, potatoes and rotational crops, and he’s happy to tell the world about it.

Hoverson Brothers is one of 27 shareholder operations in American Crystal Sugar Co. that have signed up for the Field to Market program – a nationwide sustainability plan that starts with collecting data on inputs and equipment. The information is used to measure seven sustainability indicators: land use, conservation, soil carbon, irrigation water use, water quality, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Technically, there are two Hoverson farms based near Larimore. Casey, 32, and his brother, Michael, 36, are in a cropping partnership together (Hoverson Brothers).

Hoverson Brothers grows 20,000 acres of crops – sugar beets, corn, wheat, seed canola, soybeans and dry edible beans – as rotation crops for Hoverson Farms, a processing potato operation headed by their father, Carl Hoverson, in partnership with R.D. Offutt Co.

Casey, sitting in the cab of his tractor during sugar beet planting, says the Field to Market program was a natural choice for his farm because he already has done some of the required reporting for other programs, especially in potatoes and seed canola.

A buzzword

Tyler Grove, ag strategy development manager for American Crystal in Moorhead, is in charge of the Field to Market project. Grove says the farmers involved so far have a particular desire to learn more about what they can do to help the company.

“It’s a win-win, looking toward the future for sustainability and assisting the company in their endeavor to be sustainable,” Grove says.

American Crystal, with 740 farming operations, got involved, in part, at the encouragement of General Mills, one of its larger sugar customers. General Mills has identified sugar as one of its 10 priority ingredients for strides in sustainability by 2020. Grove says American Crystal is the first U.S. beet sugar company he knows of to join Field to Market. The company joined in August 2013.

Based in Minneapolis, General Mills is a Fortune 500 company. It is most famous for brands such as Cheerios and Wheaties.

Sustainability has gotten to be a buzzword that more customers are tuned to, even though there are varying definitions.

“We evaluated programs and participated in sustainability questionnaires” for various programs, Grove says. “We decided Field to Market was the most robust, or inclusive program for sustainability for us.”

Production, stewardship

Field to Market considers crop data over an entire rotation regimen on a farm. In the Hoversons’ case, for example, potato production already is in a separate but similar data collection program for J.R. Simplot in Grand Forks.

“They were one of the farms that had the analytics,” Grove says of the Hoversons. “What we recognize was a farm that wanted more information about their production. That’s the type of farm we’d like to work with – those that are inquisitive, curious – wanting to improve their production, but also the stewardship aspect of it.”

Participants are keeping detailed records and creating reports. The figures are analyzed through software criteria developed by Field to Market and processed through farm management software.

“The participants are willing to take that extra step to see how their farm compares to others and to look for that continuing improvement,” Grove says.

Hoverson acknowledges that most farmers in business today must keep track of their inputs, but the Hoversons’ reporting is probably more computerized.

“We’re looking at ways to get better, but we’re also finding practices we employ that are already sustainable,” Grove says, noting that it makes farmers more comfortable with this type of program.

Grove says one of the basic sustainability issues is the prediction of 9 billion mouths to feed globally by 2050.

“That’s presented, over and over,” Grove says. “What we’re doing in the present is finding out how to feed these people with fewer resources. That’s the overall goal of sustainability and, in a sense, is a definition.”

Where credit’s due

American Crystal can be credited for some things it’s already doing, without changing a thing. For example, almost none of American Crystal’s beets in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota use irrigation water, a positive in the world of sustainability.

Growers already are working to reduce the “passes” they make across fields, combining some of the chemical applications, which also is good for sustainability. Cover crops, reduced tillage and residue management are being studied continuously.

It’s also important to closely manage plant food availability to the crop. American Crystal growers already have been doing this through a quality program that gives producers an incentive to use only enough nitrogen fertilizer to get a good yield, but then back off as the crop approaches harvest. The practice increases the sugar content of the beet, but also fits with the sustainability goal.