MURTAUGH — The Murtaugh sugar beet receiving station sat dark and empty in the early hours of Oct. 6.
Amalgamated Sugar Co.'s beet dump was scheduled to open at 8 a.m. so grower Ron Hepworth could bring in the first of his harvest. The crop was ready, but his scalper, or beet topper, needed unexpected repair before he could start digging beets.
No matter how well harvest is planned, adverse weather, breakdowns and other unforeseen factors can get in the way. But the harvest that brings in more than $300 million to the Idaho economy must go on.
The Times-News’ "Sugar Bowl" series documents a year in the sugar beet cycle, and this third installment follows Ron's family through the harvest, from the fields to the beet dump.
For the 47-year old Murtaugh farmer and hundreds of others in south-central Idaho, beet harvest is the climax after months of working the fields and watching the weather, the annual payoff for the longest growing season among southern Idaho commodities.
The harvest begins
Amalgamated Sugar Co. orchestrates the flow of beets into its Paul, Twin Falls and Nampa factories, as well as its 74 receiving stations where beets are piled and stored until the factories are ready for them. Ron’s were the only beets choreographed to arrive at the Murtaugh beet dump Oct. 6, and its 8 a.m. schedule was just for him.
With the scalper repaired, Ron started digging beets that morning in the last field he planted — near his house on the south side of Murtaugh Lake.
"That field hasn't been irrigated since Sept. 1," he said. "It's always good to leave one field dry in case we get weather."
Mud in the field can hamper or significantly delay harvest.
Here the harvest players know their roles well.
Ron runs the beet digger, a machine pulled behind a tractor that pops beets out of the soil and onto a conveyor that shakes dirt and debris from the crop. The conveyor lifts the beets about 11 feet high and drops them into a harvest truck strategically placed beside the digger as it runs through the field.
Ron's father, 81-year-old Ray Hepworth of Twin Falls, runs a six-row scalper removing the leaves from the beet plants just ahead of the beet digger.
"I haven't missed a year of sugar beets since I was 16," Ray said.
Ray and his wife, Juanita, raised a family of five on the family farm; Ron is their youngest. Ray retired and sold his ground in 2002 but still assists Ron during harvest.
Ray watched Ron and Ron’s son, Daniel, remove the outside wheels from the rear axle of the tractor that pulls the narrow scalper. Each tire rolled under its own weight, then flopped on its side with a “whump.”
“The duals are too wide to make a sharp turn with this scalper,” Ray said. "We used to use a 12-row scalper, but the digger couldn’t keep up.”
Had the weather cooled, Ron might have returned to the wider scalper, which saves fuel because it takes only half the passes to get through a field. But as long as daytime temperatures stayed above 50 degrees, the six-row scalper would remain behind the tractor.
"If the beets are left out in the open air too long, they will get too hot to put in the beet pile,” Ray said. “We don’t want any spoilage in the pile."
That morning, the Hepworth crew delivered the first truckloads of the crop to the beet dump on U.S. 30, southwest of town. Nearly a thousand loads of Ron's crop would follow, plus loads from about a half-dozen other growers.
The Murtaugh beet dump, said Amalgamated Sugar fieldman Kendall Henderson, will hold 80,000 tons by the end of harvest.
A family effort
The eastern sky was bright red Oct. 20 just before the sun rose over Mount Harrison.
The morning started with the sound of shotguns hammering away at geese on Murtaugh Lake. The air was crisp, and the birds' honking carried for miles. Murtaugh hadn't seen a killing frost yet, but windshields had to be scraped for several mornings in a row.
The Hepworth crew had finished the field south of the lake and moved to a field north of U.S. 30, just a mile from the beet dump.
The weather report threatened rain — a lot of rain — and Ron was determined to get as many beets out of the ground and piled at the receiving station as he could before the fields became too “greasy” to work.
Ron’s father-in-law, Duane Turner, had just delivered a busload of students to Murtaugh’s school and now jumped into a harvest truck with a reporter in tow.
Ron, in the digger, waited for the scalper to open the field, but that morning the man running the scalper wasn’t his father. The sunup-to-sundown hours had taken a toll on the old man, and for the first time Ray found he couldn’t keep up. He was replaced by Ron’s hired hand Eusevio Martinez.
Eusevio’s son Apolinar was driving another harvest truck, and so were Daniel and Brandon Clark, the father of Ron’s oldest granddaughter.
Frost had settled on the sugar beet leaves, but the roots were OK to harvest, Duane said. The leaf canopy insulates the roots from the cold like a blanket.
Duane has driven a beet harvest truck for 10 years and owns 25 of the 327 beet shares his son-in-law grows for the Snake River Sugar Co. cooperative.
"I bought the shares when Ronnie was farming my ground and he was still working with his dad," said Duane, a retired route salesman for Wonder Bread.
"We paid $400 per share when the co-op started," he said. "I've seen shares go as high as $1,000."
Rain had muddied the fields a few days before, but the crew decided it was safe to dig.
"It's slow going," Duane said as he pulled alongside the digger in his harvest truck.
It took only a few minutes to fill the truck, then the heavily laden 10-wheeler drove back over the harvested rows to exit the field and onto 4550 East, dropping wet clods of soil on the pavement.
Landowner Jeff Watts, who leases land to Ron, sat on a small tractor with a scraper waiting to clear the road of mud.
At the beet dump, Duane pulled onto the scales to weigh his load, then he sat a few minutes as Amalgamated Sugar employees moved the beet piler away from one of two growing piles of beets. More growers were bringing in beets, keeping the two pilers busy.
Duane maneuvered his truck onto a ramp and raised its dump bed. Beets rolled onto the piler, and sugar factory employees took samples before the Hepworth beets were piled with other beets. Once again Duane pulled onto the scale to get his empty — or tare — weight.
The round trip through the field, to the beet dump and back again took about a half-hour. He'd make 10 trips to the beet dump that day before trading his truck for a school bus to deliver students to their homes after school.
Ron’s wife, Shala, pulled in next to the field and parked her van across the road. She carried their granddaughter Adelaide into the field and jumped into the tractor with Ron.
“It’s the only way I get to see my husband during harvest,” Shala said. “Ron and I do most everything together. He is truly my best friend.”
A few days later, the Hepworth harvest lost another worker. Eusevio went to Mexico for his brother's funeral, so Ray returned to work the final days of harvest on the scalper.
The crew finished digging the last of 327 acres on Oct. 27. Ron’s crop was now mingled with other growers’ beets at the Murtaugh receiving station, awaiting their last trip, a 20-mile journey to the Twin Falls sugar factory. For the Hepworths, a harvest party was in order — a Thanksgiving-style gathering of everyone involved in the family's crop.
And while the Hepworths chisel plow the empty sugar beet fields to prepare them for next year's bean and barley crops, and plow the fields that will go into beets, Amalgamated's three factories are slicing through the piles of beets. It's the start of a long process that puts a tidy bag of white granules on the grocer's shelf.