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Pandemic Puts Sugar Beet Farmers In A Pinch

October is harvest time for our regional sugar beet farmers. They're facing new challenges with the pandemic.
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October is harvest time for our regional sugar beet farmers. They're facing new challenges with the pandemic.

The sugar beet harvest is underway across the Mountain West.

It’s a big industry that depends on accurate weather forecasts and a reliable workforce – both impacted by COVID-19. 

“We have really struggled with labor this year. It has been difficult,” said Michael Greear, president and CEO of Wyoming Sugar Company, a farmer-owned sugar beet processor. “We’ve been running shorthanded in the factory all year, and I know the same way all our growers have struggled to find truck drivers.”

But fewer employees is not the only way COVID-19 is disrupting the industry, as High Country News reported earlier this month.

Sugar beets need to be harvested and stored at the right temperatures. Success hinges on how farmers react to weather forecasts. If the timing isn’t right, a crop can easily spoil.

“This year’s been a bit difficult because this cold weather mass has been really unstable, or at least the predictions from it have varied wildly over four-hour periods,” Greear said. 

Those variations are tied to air travel – or in this pandemic year, a lack thereof.

“Times when we have decreases in air traffic, we have fewer data points, and the fewer data points we have, the less accurate our models can be,” said Jeff Weber, an atmospheric scientist. 

In a typical year, Weber said, weather forecasters get 200,000 observations a day from passenger plans. But right now, air travel is down about 50%. Those gaps can make forecasts – especially long-term ones – less reliable. 

That’s put the beet farmer in a precarious spot, having to make judgments that aren’t necessarily based on accurate information.  

Idaho, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming are the major sugar beet producers in our region.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.

Beau grew up listening to public radio on the Palouse. He is a former host, reporter, producer and engineer for Montana Public Radio in Missoula. As a reporter, he is interested in stories that address issues and perspectives unique to living in the West.
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