Posted: Thursday, August 19, 2010 9:00 AM
Higher cost of growing conventional sugar beets may deter some growers
By DAVE WILKINS
Sugar beet growers have some tough decisions to make now that Roundup Ready sugar beets are again a regulated crop.
"It's not a foregone conclusion that we will be unable to plant," Roundup Ready beets next year, Duane Grant, a Rupert, Idaho, farmer and chairman of the Snake River Sugar Co. board of directors, said in an interview.
Grant said the impact of the decision on farmers in Idaho, Washington and Oregon will be significant.
A federal judge remanded the matter back to USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which could adopt interim measures that would allow continued production of the crop. But without new rules, growers won't be able to plant the genetically modified crop in 2011.
A full environmental assessment, which was ordered by a federal court in September 2009, could take years and will not be ready by planting time next spring.
"It will be (APHIS') decision based on a scientific assessment of the risk and benefits involved," Grant said. "Obviously we are motivated and very willing to assist."
Growers will need some clarity on the issue very soon. They make seed-purchasing decisions in December, and seed companies are already preparing seed for 2011.
"We can't wait until next March to understand what our options are for the 2011 crop," Grant said.
Growers don't want to go back to raising conventional sugar beets. About 95 percent of the U.S. sugar beet was comprised of Roundup Ready varieties this year. Converting back to conventional varieties would mean reduced yields and much higher weed control costs.
Dan Schaeffer, who farms near Paul, Idaho, isn't sure he'll grow beets at all next year if Roundup Ready varieties are prohibited.
The additional cost of multiple conventional herbicide applications could be prohibitive, he said.
"We would have to take a long look at whether we grow beets or not," he said.
Schaeffer could rent his beet shares to another farmer if he decides not to grow the crop himself.
His only other option would be to forfeit his beet shares and "walk away," he said.
"If we lose Roundup Ready, I think you would see a number of people forfeit," he said.
Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, said it's important to note the crop that growers will harvest this fall is not affected by most recent court ruling.
"The current crop will be harvested, processed and sold," Markwart said. "That's what's important right now."
Beet seed growers in Oregon's Willamette Valley, where most of the U.S. beet seed is grown, will be harvesting the seed over the next few weeks.
One farmer, who wished to remain anonymous, said he expects to get paid for biotech beet seed now in the ground.
"We expect to get paid for our seed. It is being grown under contract, and these are honorable, reputable companies that we are dealing with," he said.
Most seed growers haven't thought out what will happen to the seed once it's delivered to the beet seed companies, he said.
Reporter Mitch Lies and The Associated Press contributed to this report.