MURTAUGH — By 8:30 a.m. on a Thursday in late August, sugar beet grower Ron Hepworth had finished moving water and was settled in for the day at his workshop. A brown haze of smoke and dust hung over the valley, obscuring everything in the distance but a ghostly outline of the South Hills.
Hepworth, whose first memory is of learning to drive a tractor on his father’s sugar beet farm, continues the tradition with his own son and grandson. The stability of sugar beet income is a key reason his family can live a lifestyle tied to the land, and sugar beets contribute almost 10 percent of Idaho’s cash receipts from crops.
It’s a sweet deal for southern Idaho’s grower-owned cooperative.
As the Times-News documents a year in the sugar beet cycle, you’ll meet those who grow the sweet roots and those who run the largest sugar beet factory in the world.
That late-August morning, Hepworth was replacing cutter rods and bearings on his bean cutter, which he expected to use by the end of the month. The leaves on his bean plants were turning from green to a bright yellow, signaling their edible seeds would soon be ready to harvest.
The growing season had started to wind down. Hepworth’s 315 acres of malt barley were cut and threshed. His hired hand was disking barley stubble in a nearby field. His alfalfa crop was on its third cutting; Hepworth grows only enough hay — 35 acres — to feed 25 cow-calf pairs.
“I’m hoping to build that number up,” he said.
His son, Daniel, who works full time on the farm, wrestled Hooch, a 10-month-old American bulldog, who wanted to be in the middle of everything. The dog is not unlike Daniel’s 3-year-old son, Wyatt, Hepworth said: “Wherever I’m working, that’s where he wants to be.”
Then the talk turned to the business of making sugar.
A lot has changed since the buyout, Hepworth said, referring to the growers’ co-op, Snake River Sugar Co., and its 1997 purchase of the century-old Amalgamated Sugar Co.
“Before the buyout, we (the growers) were at the mercy of whoever owned Amalgamated,” he said. Since then, the grower co-op has been in control of the operation.
“We’re always looking down the road,” Hepworth said. “Always looking for ways to secure our future.”
The sugar beet industry has left abandoned factories scattered across the nation, victims of a sink-or-swim process of elimination, he said. In such a specialized manufacturing environment, only the most efficient and adaptable survive.
That’s how Amalgamated Sugar Co.’s plant in Paul became the largest sugar beet factory in the world. The sugar company has fine-tuned the plant and its processes over the past century as it stays in step with advances in technology.
Model of efficiency
While beets bulk up in Hepworth’s Murtaugh fields, a massive manufacturing machine is readying to receive the crop from him and 750 other south-central Idaho growers.
Theirs is a cooperative in the true sense of the word, Hepworth said. Growers and factory workers together customize their solutions for harvesting the crop, preserving the beets while they make their way to the factory, and keeping the product flowing through the plant without interruption.
“We learn as we go,” Larry Lloyd, manager of the Paul plant, said during a July tour of the factory. The sugar company “owes thanks to the forward-thinking growers. We’re now the biggest in the world. Without the co-op’s support, we couldn’t have done this.”
Perhaps the biggest manufacturing advance is the factory’s ability to make sugar year-round, rather than being limited to a few months in the fall and winter.
Sugar beets must be processed quickly, before they spoil. For decades, the factory would begin its slicing campaign at harvest — slicing whole beets into cossettes similar to french fries, then extracting the sugar. It took several months to process the entire crop, then the factory would all but shut down until the next harvest.
The Paul plant and its smaller counterparts in Twin Falls and Nampa used to employ many seasonal workers — especially farmers who planted and grew sugar beets in the spring and summer, then worked the slicing campaign after harvest.
“It gave the farmers a winter job,” Hepworth said.
In the past decade, an expanding factory schedule increased opportunities for full-time, year-round employees.
The Paul factory still processes the crop as quickly as possible — the slicing campaign now lasts 200 days — but the plant holds back 40 percent of the nonperishable sucrose “juice” to be crystallized after the slicing campaign ends.
The factory now operates 24 hours a day with no breaks; the movement of product through the plant is choreographed to last 11 months, so the last of the 2015 crop is made into sugar shortly before the first of the 2016 crop hits the factory.
The sugar-making process takes a huge toll on equipment. Every summer, the factory is filled with workers who maintain, repair and upgrade the facility.
“Beets are abrasive. Sugar is very abrasive. Juice is corrosive,” Lloyd said.
Thousands of valves and miles of piping are inspected and repaired or replaced so the plant can run the next slicing campaign without breakdowns. Such work is called “prediction maintenance.”
“We have to predict what could go wrong” in order to prevent a breakdown, said Jeremy Smith, facility manager. “We can’t afford the downtime.”
Amalgamated Sugar’s three plants employ a total of about 1,600 workers, while an additional 400 seasonal workers man the 74 sugar beet receiving stations during harvest and the slicing campaign. As the Paul factory becomes more efficient, fewer employees are needed to work the slicing campaign and more are needed for maintenance and repair.
“But the maintenance and repair season is crunched down now,” Lloyd said. “And that’s the challenge.”
Ideal growing season
While the Paul plant crystallizes juice held back from the 2015 crop, Mother Nature is being kind to most Magic Valley sugar beet growers so far this year.
“No catastophes,” Hepworth said. Unlike some years.
In the first two months after sowing seeds, Hepworth made only three passes through the field: two applications of Roundup to kill emerging weeds and one cultivation to break up a hard layer of soil between the rows.
“No tractor has been in my beets since June,” he said.
The few exceptions to the near-perfect growing season include a narrow band of damage from a July hailstorm, a small infestation of the black bean aphid in some of the beet crop, and a few fields that show symptoms of rhizomania — called “crazy root” because of the deformed and shriveled root that results from the disease.
“We don’t worry about rhizomania too much any more,” Hepworth said. “There’s rhizomania in all the soil here, so most of us grow rhizomania-resistant beets now.”
The hailstorm set back affected sugar beets about four weeks, so growers expect a 4-ton-per-acre loss of yields in those fields. The aphid’s effect on the crop is not yet known, but damage was enough to warrant some growers near Kimberly spraying for the insect, which sucks the life out of new foliage.
Growing a crop is all about balance — paying close attention to economic thresholds, Hepworth said. It’s costly to treat a crop for pests and diseases, and crop losses in early stages are often less than the cost of treating the pest.
“It doesn’t make much sense to spend money to kill them unless they are doing a lot of damage,” he said.
With the 2016 sugar beet crop heading into the homestretch, growers are hoping for temperatures to drop to increase its sugar content.
How does that work?
The sugar beet is a biennial: In nature, it grows from a seedling to a mature adult the first year, winters over, then flowers and produces seeds the second year.
But here in sugar beet country, the beet is harvested at the end of the first growing season, when its sugar content is highest.
During the growing season, each sugar beet plant needs a lot of water, sunlight and heat to bulk up its root. Then cool nights and shorter days signal the crop that winter is coming on and it’s time to store sugar. The plant needs sugar to sustain itself through the winter — it doesn’t know that a harvester will cut short its life before winter hits.
Beginning in a few weeks, 35,800 tons of sugar beets per day will enter Amalgamated Sugar’s factories, resulting in 3,400 tons of White Satin sugar shipped daily and maintaining the company’s standing as the second largest sugar processor in the U.S.