PAUL — LeRoy Uhrich harvested his final crop of sugar beets on Oct. 13 after 53 years of navigating the challenges of what wind, insects, freezing temperatures or hail can do to the hardy crop.
At the beginning, he said, it was a good thing he didn’t know all the things that could go wrong.
“I’ve had all those things happen,” said Uhrich, 74, who grew beets each of the 53 years he spent farming.
But this year, his last, was a record-setting harvest.
His biggest beet this year weighed in at 22.65 pounds, which he entered into Paul Haun’s Hardware beet contest.
“I don’t think it will win, though, because the winner usually weighs about 24 pounds,” he said.
He harvested 42.2 tons per acre on the homestead parcel, the most ever produced on it. Another field that he leased produced 45.1 ton per acre.
“That was the best ever in my farming career,” he said. “I knew all summer it was good.”
Uhrich picks up a scrap of paper on his dining room table and reads a favorite Bible verse reminding him of how things really come about.
“So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow,” he said.
He started farming in 1965 with his father, Harold Uhrich, who gave him 10 acres on the family homestead after he was released from the Air Force.
“He started out with humble beginnings, and he’s ending humbly,” LeRoy’s wife, Debbie Uhrich, said.
Debbie, Uhrich’s third wife, says she was a city girl, but has come to love the role as a farmer’s wife.
“It’s been a great experience,” she said.
Uhrich hand-thinned the beets on his field that first year and watched his operation grow over the decades to 112 acres, some of the ground leased from nearby farms.
“When I got my first beet check I thought this is a pretty good deal,” he said. “It was a modest amount by today’s standards but gas was only 40 cents a gallon then and you could buy a pizza for two bucks. It looked pretty big to me.”
Over the next five decades his opinion of beet farming didn’t change much. He grew a few other crops along the way too, like barley and hay, but his main interest was always in the sugar beet.
“I just couldn’t see making the farm pay with other crops,” he said. “And I never envisioned getting big. I was satisfied to farm on a small scale.”
There is something gratifying, he said, in watching those little seeds grow into beets that are several pounds.
In 1996, he purchased 112 shares for $400 per share with the new grower’s co-op Snake River Sugar Company, which purchased Amalgamated Sugar Co.
He went through 10 crop consultants from Amalgamated Sugar.
“They were a valuable source of information,” he said.
He was also was a seed representative, which allowed him to get to know more than 100 growers around Mini-Cassia.
“I cultivated some of their practices into my operation,” he said.
The farmer mentality in Mini-Cassia is astounding, he said. “I’ve seen times when a farmer had an accident and his neighbors would leave their own crops to come and harvest his. We live in a great community.”
The varieties changed over time and the seed companies developed better product, which meant better yields. But the biggest advance came with introduction of Roundup Ready beets in 2008. Roundup Ready crops are genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup.
That meant the beets could grow without competing with weeds for moisture, sunlight and nutrients.
“That was the biggest thing that happened in my career. It really increased the yield of a crop,” he said. “I know I started to sleep better knowing the weeds weren’t going to overtake the beets.”
The space between beets shrank from 10 to 12 inches to four to six inches.
“And there was no thinning,” he said.
Some farmers will argue, he said, that beets aren’t as big now, but that’s up for debate.
Uhrich enjoyed everything about growing beets — the planting, watering and especially harvest.
He always hired help during harvest, and after his father died he had a loyal hired man for 20 years.
About three years ago he started hiring trucks to haul the sugar beets from his field to the plant after his old trucks gave out.
“I will definitely miss harvest because that is the culmination of a year’s worth of effort. I have always looked forward to it. It is the work of your hands, the fruit of your labor. And when the beets go into a truck it is really satisfying,” he said. “I wouldn’t have changed a thing — including the challenges.”