Beet farmers cope with new requirements
Paperwork adds 20 hours a month to work schedule, official estimates
By JOHN O'CONNELL
Based on the uncertainty caused by a federal judge's ban last year on the unregulated use of genetically modified Roundup Ready sugar beets, Rupert farmer Duane Grant spent about $250,000 preparing a contingency plan for this fall's crop.
Those preparations entailed buying four additional tractors and 16 new herbicide tanks, building six new sprayer bars and rebuilding cultivators left idle for more than three years. To provide the labor necessary to tend conventional sugar beets, he planned to bring in more labor from Mexico under the H-2A agricultural guestworker program.
Looking back as he begins a beet harvest that promises good prices and high yields, Grant believes he averted catastrophe because he never had to implement his Plan B -- the U.S. Department of Agriculture partially deregulated Roundup Ready beets in February, enabling farmers outside California and parts of Washington to continue to grow the crop under strict regulations.
Nonetheless, Grant, chairman of the board of Snake River Sugar Cooperative, and other Idaho growers are quick to note sugar beet farming this season came with a major new administrative headache.
New regulations intended to keep genetically modified beet pollen from reaching organic fields require growers to keep detailed records on chain of custody, transportation and a host of other issues. They must also fill out paperwork regarding newly required self-monitoring efforts to eradicate volunteer bolters.
Third-party inspections of randomly chosen fields, funded by beet processors, were mandated. Growers are expected to monitor their fields -- and keep records -- for three years to make sure they stay volunteer free.
Since 2009, 100 percent of Idaho's sugar beet acres have been Roundup Ready, Grant said.
Grant has found most growers already keep fairly detailed records on their crops and transportation. Still, he estimates the extra paperwork has added 20 hours per month to the duties of his field manager, and Grant is irritated that he's forced to track and hand over once proprietary information.
Growers are required to report any bolters to the USDA, and some have been found, Grant said.
He knows of at least one grower in his cooperative who decided not to put up with the hassle. To avoid relinquishing his interest in the co-op, that grower hired Grant to cultivate 160 acres of his sugar beets.
The sprayers and cultivators have been returned unused to Grant's "fence row" -- the place on his farm where he keeps useless equipment. That's fine by Grant.
"It would have been an unmitigated disaster," he said of the prospects of planting a conventional crop. "We wouldn't have had chemicals to do the job. I no longer have employees trained to apply herbicides like they used to. My sugar beet manager told me straight up if I went conventional, he was quitting."
The co-op sent officials to a training session on the new rules, and they returned to offer a course to the growers. The training, which spanned a couple of hours, was a requirement for them to secure a contract.
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the agency responsible for conducting USDA-mandated inspection services, has found the growers are generally following the requirements.
"APHIS inspections found that the growers have been trained in all the aspects of the compliance agreement and are following all requirements; moreover, records are being kept correctly, according to the stipulations of the compliance agreement, both at the grower level and at the responsible entity level," said APHIS spokeswoman Alyn Kiel.
"There is new and more paperwork than we have done in the past ... but it has been a manageable situation," Alan Parks, who farms sugar beets west of Blackfoot, said.
While taking a break from his early sugar beet harvest, American Falls area grower Larry Bethke estimated he spends about half a day every three to four weeks on extra work to comply with the new regulations.
Bethke's inspections have turned up some bolters, and he stressed he was quick to remove and report those.
"It takes a couple of hours per week to comply. It's just a hassle, but if that's what we have to do to save Roundup Ready, that's what we'll do," Bethke said.