Sidney Sugars closure: Sugar beet farmers pivot ahead of planting

Sidney hop farm, winter
Posted at 8:16 PM, Feb 14, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-15 11:08:00-05

SIDNEY — The dust is settling in Sidney after an announced closure of the sugar beet factory last Monday.

While many questions remain unanswered, farmers are trying to figure out how to keep their livelihood as planting season approaches.

"Sugar beets have been part of our history for almost 100 years," says Sarah Degn, owner of Fresh Hopped Farms. "It's not just part of our community, it's part of our family's history. It's part of our community's history that we're losing with this factory closing."

Degn's great-grandparents were part of a wave of settlers who came to the Sidney area in the early 20th century as part of the Homestead Act.

“My great-grandparents came over with the Homestead Act in 1925, the same year that the sugar beet factory opened," Degn said. "Because the factory opened about the same time a lot of the farmers moved here. I think everybody kind of just fell into that."

After nearly 100 years, the factory that supported generations of sugar beet farmers in the Yellowstone River Valley of Eastern Montana—is closing in mid-April.

“The biggest draw with the sugar beets is that we had the factory in town. It's a six-mile haul for me," Degn said.

Related: Sidney braces for ripple effect of sugar plant closing
Related: Sugar beet growers: Sidney Sugars didn't pay enough for our crops

In a press release announcing the closure, representatives for American Crystal, the parent company of Sidney Sugars, said farmers had lost interest in growing the crop and there was not a big enough sugar beet haul to keep the facility viable.

“I just instantly got angry, which I'm a fairly calm person, and putting the blame on the farmers is ridiculous," Degn said. "I already ordered seed, I had fully intended on planting and there's a lot of us that, I mean we had 19,000 acres planned, so now we all have to pivot and figure out something else to do with those 19,000 acres.”

Jeff Bieber, president of the Montana-Dakota Beet Growers Association, says the organization had about 75 farmers in the area signed up to grow beets in 2023.

Some say they saw the writing on the wall. Beet acres in the valley were on the decline as farmers say contracts with American Crystal continued to pay less over time.

"These men and women would grow sugar beets for the rest of their lives if they could make a living doing it," said Houston Scarborough, who has worked in sugar beet production for over a decade. "But you can't make a living on $49/ton for sugar beets."

Degn and other beet farmers are now trying to figure out how to pivot, or in some cases, whether to call it quits completely.

For some, that means planting new crops.

"It'll be interesting to try and replace the income from sugar beet with different kinds of grains, different kinds of hay perhaps," Degn said.

One crop Degn is experimenting with is the namesake of her farm, although you won't find many others planting it in Eastern Montana.

"I started growing hops and it's an acre of hops. It's a pretty small part, but I knew that would be the hardest part to sell," Degn said. "So hopefully this year now I'll have some time to play with my hops plants, a couple new varieties and work with the local breweries here and maybe in North Dakota get some fresh hopped beers going.”

The factory closure is a big blow to these farms and the community, and not just a financial one, as Sidney seeks a new identity and a future without sugar beets.

“I moved back here to grow sugar beets and I kind of feel like I am losing that part of my opportunity as a farmer. So I don't wanna lose a crop that I've had in my entire life and hopefully can have again someday," Degn said.

MTN has reached out to American Crystal but multiple calls and emails have not been returned.