Sugarbeet harvest in the Red River Valley is an all hands on deck operation, due to the short window producers have to get their sugarbeets harvested.
“Our growers represent 37% of the entire U.S. sugarbeet crop and 20% of all domestic sugar production. It’s the largest movement of freight in the world in this short amount of time,” said Harrison Weber, executive director of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association.
Unlike many crops, sugarbeets have an extremely short window to be harvested, with the harvest itself averaging between 10 to 14 days. Due to the short time frame, once the sugarbeet harvest officially begins, growers and their laborers will be working around the clock to get their crop out of the field. Sugarbeet harvest is a 24 hours per day, seven days a week operation.
With American Crystal Sugar Company acres in the region alone coming in at around 410,000 acres of sugarbeets, seasonal labor is essential for a smooth and successful harvest.
“It’s very reasonable to estimate that we need 7,000 to 10,000 people just on the farm side of things,” Harrison said.
“Collectively, up and down the valley, it is getting harder and harder each year to find labor. There’s a general trend that it is more challenging the following year to get harvest help than it was the previous year,” Harrison said.
In hopes of helping growers looking for seasonal harvest help, the Red River Valley Growers Association has set up a portal for their growers to use. “The harvest help” portal has been praised by producers looking for additional laborers on the farm during harvest season. Through this portal, growers can list classified ads stating what type of workers they are looking for, such as truck drivers.
Jason Schatzke farms with his wife, Tanya, and their three children southwest of Casselton, North Dakota. He is a fifth generation farmer. The Schatzkes’ operation encompasses sugarbeets, corn, soybeans, edible beans, wheat and sunflowers. The family puts out about 1,500 to 2,000 acres of sugarbeets each year.
“We do have five full-time employees on our farm, but during sugarbeet harvest I need close to 40 of them to get the crop harvested in that short window that we have,” Schatzke said. “Finding enough help is a challenge we have every year, and it seems like it’s gotten to be a greater challenge in the last five to 10 years.”
According to Schatzke, a large number of the seasonal workers are those from the retired community, such as retired farmers, in addition to college students.
Cafes, field delivery co-ops, equipment dealers, part suppliers and many other local businesses play a large and integral role in the success of the region’s sugarbeet harvest.
“A lot of these stores, if they aren’t open 24 hours, somebody is willing to answer the phone all hours of the day during harvest because our guys are running all day,” Harrison said. “We need the entire region’s support to get this crop out of the ground. And we do — we get very strong community support. We are very thankful for that.”
Though it is an intense two weeks of work, many growers believe it is a smart way to make a good amount of money in a short period of time. In addition, those who participate directly in the harvest process understand how vital a good sugarbeet harvest is for not just themselves, but for the region and community as a whole.
“Where I farm out in Casselton, people understand how important this crop is for the success of the entire community,” Schatzke said. “Once we get the harvest completed, you can see it in everybody’s eyes how important it was and how much fun they had. It is truly rewarding to be part of something like this.”