Sugar job loss could devastate Idaho town, threaten co-op
By DAVE WILKINS
Farmers aren't the only ones uncertain about the future of the sugar beet industry in the wake of a federal judge's decision to ban the planting of Roundup Ready varieties.
The uncertainty extends to the rural communities where sugar beets are grown.
"If (seed companies) don't have enough beet seed for everyone here, it will devastate this area. That's our cash crop," Randy Jones, mayor of Paul, Idaho, said in an interview.
Hundreds of people work at the Amalgamated Sugar Co. beet processing plant in Paul, a farm town of 1,000 people. The plant processes beets grown all over Southern Idaho, from the Treasure Valley to the Blackfoot area.
But a ruling by a federal judge in California on Aug. 13 makes Roundup Ready sugar beets a regulated crop again, meaning that it can't be grown commercially.
Beet growers have grown Roundup Ready varieties almost exclusively the past two years because it provides superior weed control and thus higher yields. Now growers are faced with the prospect of converting back to conventional varieties, and it's not clear how much of that is available.
Jones worries that a serious seed shortage could affect the local sugar factory and his town's economic future.
"If they had to shut the plant down, it would not only devastate Paul, but the entire area for hundreds of miles in both directions," he said.
Duane Grant, a farmer from nearby Rupert, Idaho, and chairman of the Snake River Sugar Co., said growers will definitely come up short next year if they are limited to planting only conventional seed varieties.
"What we know right now is that we do not have enough conventional seed to plant the full crop. Early indications are that we are substantially short," Grant said.
There has been no conventional seed sold to Snake River growers since 2008, he said.
"The only conventional seed available is residual seed that was produced prior to the transition to Roundup Ready," Grant said.
Exactly how much is available for planting next year will depend on how well seed companies sweep out their warehouses, and they'll need "a good broom," he said.
Grant declined to discuss any contingency plans the co-op might have or how a significant seed shortage might affect the operation of the co-op's three processing plants in Idaho.
The co-op board is scheduled to meet in early September.
"You can be certain this will be on the agenda," he said.
Beet growers still hope that USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will adopt some interim measures that will allow them to grow some Roundup Ready varieties until the agency completes a full environmental impact statement as ordered by the court.
"That's not just a pipe dream," Grant said. "APHIS said in their court filings that they have the authority to issue interim measures, and they indicated that exercising that authority would be one of the options on the table."
The Snake River Sugar co-op is comprised of about 1,125 growers in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
Members are obligated to deliver a specified number of acres for processing based on the number of shares they own.
They can rent the shares to other growers if they don't want to grow the crop themselves.
Alternatively, growers could simply forfeit their shares, but they would also lose whatever market value those shares have.
Grant said widespread share forfeitures could put the future of the co-op in jeopardy, but he doesn't expect that to happen.
"Members have committed to the co-op and to each other that they will plant those acres," he said. Failure to do so "reduces the co-op's ability to be a successful company."
Alternatives crops include wheat, alfalfa and corn, but none of those offers growers the kind of return they can get with sugar beets, Grant said.
"We feel the co-op has a bright future," he said.