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Is there a “Gabe Brown” approach to sugar beets?

 
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Farming is in my family and even though they have not been operating on permaculture principles, it’s hard for me to criticize them.

In particular I am thinking of my uncle.  He is planning on retiring after next year, so this won’t affect him, but I can’t help but wonder how he could have done something different.

For the last 25 years or so my uncle has been a sugarbeat farmer in western Minnesota.  Most everyone around him is a corn/wheat/oats/barley/beans/etc. type of farmer.  But he was able to buy into a sugar beet cooperative and has made good money in doing so, even during crises years like the ‘90s.

The reason I ask is that harvesting sugar beats involves a lot of digging in the fields.  The beets are the size of basketballs, and need to be “lifted” out of the fields.  This leaves the fields being pretty rough after harvest.  

Since I watched my first Gabe Brown video I have been hooked, fascinated.  Gabe takes great care of his soil.  Sugar beet harvesting really seems to harm soil.  Is there an alternative?

This is especially notable this year.  The area my uncle farms is in low, flat country.  A couple thousand years ago. The whole area was covered by a vast lake called “Lake Agassi”.  Today the lake is gone, but the water table is incredibly high.  This fall has been terribly rainy and the water has no place to go.  My uncle barely got his crops out but needed to spend an extra 50k to do so.  He had to put tracks on his combine.  He drove through fields that looked like rice fields, and even with the tracks, the ruts were knee deep.  Once he entered the field he dared not stop or he would have sunk in.

The reason I mentioned the rain is that Gabe Brown never seems to have soft soil conditions due to a cover crop.

Long post short, can anyone think of a way to grow sugar beats in a Gabe Brown manner?

Much thanks,

Eric
 
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I think Gabe and others grow short cover crops with the main crop because the equipment can still harvest the higher crop with the cover crop there. Not sure how that could be done with beets on a large scale.

A cover crop in the off season would add lots of carbon that could increase water absorption. Possibly delete the need for fertilizers also.
 
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A general sentiment here where your uncle lives is that sugar beet growers are the ones taking the Hawaiian vacations in the winters....... :-)   That's a bit of hyperbole, but it's true that you can't just grow beets on a whim and sell them to the cooperative, ---- you have to purchase shares in the cooperative in order to grow beets for them.  That leads to another point which is that sugar is a protected market in the US and market protection is what leads to a good and relatively stable price for beet (and cane) growers.  The cooperative model may help the growers get more profit than in many ag industries, but there is some debate about that.   As for a 'softer' means by which to produce the crop, that will be a tough one.  I suspect beets and potatoes would be similar as large industries with roughly equivalent harvesting tools and approaches and if one of those has figured out how to do this in a more gentle way, the other one would be looking on to see some advantage.  

There are, of course, less impactful ways of harvesting sugar beets that have fallen out of favor (below)......
BeetsByHand.JPG
[Thumbnail for BeetsByHand.JPG]
 
Eric Hanson
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Wayne,

I am glad that you see my quandary.  So the sugar beats paid off extremely well over the 25-30 years that he farmed them.  But the beat market is weird.  First off, it is not a true market.  You can’t just grow beats and take them to the plant.  You first have to buy a share of the plant and those are tightly regulated.

Another problem is that the plant has incredibly strict quality controls.  This is more draconian than appears at first.  As an example, the beats get inspected on a regular basis.  If the plant rep comes by and say “spray the field with fungicide X” one either complies or the beats are not accepted at harvest time!  So clearly this would not work for Gabe Brown.  Sometimes every producer gets a message saying something like “everyone must spray with herbicide Y” and again, non compliance means non acceptance.  I don’t like this draconian, Big-Brother approach.  Neither did my grandfather who was only barely involved as he was mostly retired by the time my uncle moved into beats, and my grandfather just loved small grains anyways.

I know Gabe Brown does potatoes, but these are more on a market garden scale and not field scale.  And while potatoes and sugar beats are both root crops, sugar beats are HUGE!

Sugar beats were very good to my uncle.  I am just wondering how they could have been done more sustainably.

Eric
 
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It might be possible to use a crop rotation so that each field only gets churned up every 4th year. I have no idea what to do about the chemical requirements, other than look for a buyer that wants organic sugar beets.

I'm kind of in a similar boat. I'm hoping to switch to low-till or no-till methods, but some of my crops require a lot of digging to harvest them. I'm working on a crop rotation so that each patch only get churned up once every few years, but due to a number of complications I haven't been able to get that in place yet.
 
Eric Hanson
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John,

So you are totally right about the Hawaiian vacation.  My uncle made a very good financial investment when he bought in 25-30 years ago.  

As I understand, the reason for the governmental protection of sugar beats and sugar cane traces to the Cold War.  Cuba is a huge producer of sugar cane, and is one of the most important exports.  Governmental price guarantees (for farmers) meant that the United States could out produce Cuba and drastically lower market prices.  It was part economic warfare of the Cold War.  The Cold War is over, but the policy stayed in place.

Eric
 
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I am going to say the answer is yes.  The first modern soil science seminar I went to, one of the speakers was no till potato farmer from Colorado.  They were doing a 2 year rotation and only doing spuds every other year.  So if it works on spuds that have to be dug surely it can be made to work in beets.  Here is one of the videos from that speaker.  If you hunt the internet he has several others.

 
Eric Hanson
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Ellendra,

The crop rotation idea might be best approach to “Gabe Brown” it.  The sad part is that according to Gabe, one years tillage can damage soil for up to 20 years.

Sadly, beat production might not be conducive to Gabe Brown style production as there is some serious digging involved.

The mandatory spraying with herbicide/fungicide/insecticide/whatevercide X might be just as big a deal breaker as the digging.  Seems like beats has 2 huge strikes against it.

As I said earlier, my uncle made a very good financial investment.  It has worked out well for him.  Given that he is about 1-2 years from retirement, I doubt he will be persuaded to radically change.

I stated in an earlier post on a different thread that had I had Gabe’s present knowledge 25 years ago I might have been seriously tempted to take over the family farm.  In retrospect I would have done so regeneratively.

Eric
 
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Off hand, sugar beets seem like great hog fodder.
On a home scale,  Im tempted to grow them in compost bins,  opening the sides of the bins to harvest beets and compost alike.
 
Eric Hanson
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C.

Wow!  Interesting approach.  Like I said earlier, I don’t think my uncle is going to be motivated to change what with 1-2 years left.  But interesting that there is a way to get around the soil disruption effect.

Probably the biggest problem then would be the mandatory spraying of toxic Gick.  By the time my uncle got into sugar beats, my grandfather was 1/2-3/4 retired.  He still did farm work but my uncle had taken over a lot of the unpleasant tasks like planning, etc.  My grandfather basically continued to ride tractors almost literally to the day he died.  

We all said this was the way he would go, reality was only slightly different.  I am afraid that he had lung problems from two main sources.  First, he was a lifetime on-and-off smoker.  Second, he had a major farm accident.  He was once working on a sprayer of anhydrous ammonia.  While working on it, a gasket burst and he was immediately surrounded by a fog of anhydrous ammonia, all of the Gick apparently wanting the water from his lungs.  He managed (barely) to crawl out of the cloud, got to the house (fortunately, he was still in the farm yard) and my grandmother drove him off to the hospital.

His lungs were never the same afterwards.  He always carried an inhaler with him.  As time and lung damage progressed, he got to the point where he would not go anywhere without his oxygen tank.  He died from a highly treatable malady.  A section of his intestines died.  Normally, this is simple enough to fix, a straightforward surgery would cut out the dead part and connect the living parts.  But doing so meant undergoing anesthesia.  He could certainly go under, but in his condition, he would never be able to come off the ventilator.  He died in the hospital about 10 days later.

This is a long, rambling post, but I always think about what could have become of my grandfather had he not been nearly suffocated by toxic Gick.

Eric
 
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William,

I am a little surprised that sugar beats are not used for fodder more.  They get absolutely huge!

I also think that there is a place for them in the garden.

Eric
 
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If you had enough land, you could rotate crops:

Year 1: Sugar Beets

Year 2: Cash crop (corn/beans/grain) with a cover crop.

Do people no-till plant the beets?  That would be at least one-less turning of the soil.

As I understand it, sugar beets can't be harvested until the temperatures are in a certain lower range, and if it gets too hot, you can' harvest them at all.  Because they are harvested so late in the fall, it's difficult to think of planting a cover crop after they've been taken off the field because there wouldn't be enough time and warm days for the crop to germinate and grow.  But could you sew a cover crop between the beet rows once the beets have gotten big enough that the cover crop wouldn't compete for sunlight?
 
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Marco,

Planting anything in Minnesota after late summer is dicey at best.  My Grandfather was big on trying to get at least some type of cover crop, minimal tillage, leaving debris on the field, leaving plenty of stubble, etc.  Unfortunately, by the time he harvested his fall crops, it was a little late to get a new one planted.  I realize Gabe Brown does it, but then he saw cover crops differently that my grandfather.

Just as a FYI, While my uncle was all about the sugar beats, my grandfather thought they were more trouble than they were worth.  At one point, my uncle was about to spray something like 160 acres of sugar beats with some fungicide 2 weeks before harvest.  My uncle's logic was that in order to be effective, the fungicide had to be applied before the fungus.  My grandfathers logic:  Why was he spending something like &20k for spray 2 weeks before harvesting?  Was there really more than $20k at stake in the sugar beats? mind you that even if the beats were infected, it would only affect the top growth.  At worst, the beat part would simply stop growing.  My grandfather was a pretty conventional farmer by the standards of Permies, but one of the qualities he possessed that made him a successful farmer was that he was always asking these two basic questions:  What is it going to cost me and will it pay off in the end?  He always treated his crops like valuable commodities.  He did not necessarily rush to sell his grain.  In fact, he deliberately held back much of his grain so that he could sell it off season when the price was higher.  At one point, the price of soy beans was spiking dramatically (he followed crop prices constantly).  He drove off to the grain elevator with a load of soybeans in an old, beat-up grain truck and drove back in a new, much bigger grain truck!  He was very good that way.

Eric
 
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Eric Hanson wrote: He managed (barely) to crawl out of the cloud, got to the house (fortunately, he was still in the farm yard) and my grandmother drove him off to the hospital.

Eric



Sorry to hear of his accident.  We had a safety video at work one day....don't know how readily the video is accessible on the internet.....showing how quickly a person can be overcome from leaking anhydrous ammonia.  If memory serves me, it was actually a rural police officer responding to an accident where the tank was leaking across a roadway.  He had his body-radio on and went in to see if the driver who was pulling the tank was still alive.  Needless to say, the police officer never came back out of the fumes....he just didn't realize what he was entering.  Amazing how much of that is knifed into the soil each year for adding nitrogen, but when the toxicity is noted, at what cost to soil biota.
 
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Eric Hanson wrote:William,
I am a little surprised that sugar beats are not used for fodder more.  They get absolutely huge!

I also think that there is a place for them in the garden.

Eric



Joseph Lofthouse noted in a previous post about making sugar in the kitchen (?)....if I recall right.  So I think this is another way to think about a bottoms-up instead of top-down approach to sugar for home use.....getting recipes for sugar extraction that can be done on a household or community level.  Granted the latest beet varieties are the product of some pretty remarkable plant breeding, but the sugar content is around 17 - 20% (wet weight) and most fields come in around 25 tons of beets per acre. (At a rough recent payment of ~$48.00 per ton, that's ~$1200.00 per acre, not counting inputs.) But there are 'legacy'/heirloom sugar beet varieties out there that could be used and seed kept as you would for other types of beets and Swiss chard.

Under optimum (i.e., upper theoretical maximum) conditions, a 5 lb beet would yield 1 lb of crystallized sugar.  Many of these beets get pretty large, but the really large beets that are used around the world for fodder are fodder beets.  Same things as sugar beets, only bred more for high mass and not so high on sugar.
 
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John,

You are absolutely correct about the soil biota.  Honestly, way before I ever discovered Permies, back when I still though that one particular nasty herbicide was safe, I already really questioned anhydrous ammonia.  I know how incredibly potent household ammonia is and that is only 5% NH3!  Anhydrous is 85%.  Blows my mind, both then and now.  

Without going too cider pressy, if I were to do a side-by-side comparison of nasty herbicide X and anhydrous, my mind instinctively wants to scream that anhydrous is worse!  If we really did that side-by-side comparison, I do seriously wonder which would be worse.  Given that I am recently a convert to the world of all things fungal and recognizing the importance of microbiota in soil fertility, I am stupefied that anhydrous can possibly do any good for plants.

Blows my mind!

Eric
 
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Eric Hanson wrote:Marco,

Planting anything in Minnesota after late summer is dicey at best.  My Grandfather was big on trying to get at least some type of cover crop, minimal tillage, leaving debris on the field, leaving plenty of stubble, etc.  Unfortunately, by the time he harvested his fall crops, it was a little late to get a new one planted.  I realize Gabe Brown does it, but then he saw cover crops differently that my grandfather.

Just as a FYI, While my uncle was all about the sugar beats, my grandfather thought they were more trouble than they were worth.  At one point, my uncle was about to spray something like 160 acres of sugar beats with some fungicide 2 weeks before harvest.  My uncle's logic was that in order to be effective, the fungicide had to be applied before the fungus.  My grandfathers logic:  Why was he spending something like &20k for spray 2 weeks before harvesting?  Was there really more than $20k at stake in the sugar beats? mind you that even if the beats were infected, it would only affect the top growth.  At worst, the beat part would simply stop growing.  My grandfather was a pretty conventional farmer by the standards of Permies, but one of the qualities he possessed that made him a successful farmer was that he was always asking these two basic questions:  What is it going to cost me and will it pay off in the end?  He always treated his crops like valuable commodities.  He did not necessarily rush to sell his grain.  In fact, he deliberately held back much of his grain so that he could sell it off season when the price was higher.  At one point, the price of soy beans was spiking dramatically (he followed crop prices constantly).  He drove off to the grain elevator with a load of soybeans in an old, beat-up grain truck and drove back in a new, much bigger grain truck!  He was very good that way.

Eric



In the northern tier with cold winters, sugar beet is sown in the spring and harvested in the fall.  In the Imperial Valley of California and those with similar climates, beets are sown in the fall and harvested the following spring and early summer.  The record-sized crops for most of the US are held by Imperial Valley growers if I'm not mistaken.  Part of the reason that beets can tolerate the increasingly saline soils in southern Cal is due to the fact that their ancestor, Beta maritima or "sea beet", grew along the coasts of Europe from the northern countries down through the Mediterranean, so they are naturally more salt tolerant than many crops.

Because it's a large industry and made up mostly of grower-owned cooperatives in the US, how the growers/cooperative go about deciding what to grow and how to treat the crop has many angles.  The industry as a whole would welcome being past having to use chemicals for its operations, but like most industries, profits to shareholders (....in this case, the growers themselves are owner-shareholder) comes into play.  If one person decides not to spray for sake of saving money....and that decision IMO confronts every producer at some time or other....there is probably little harm done (with the exception of pathogen inoculum build-up in the soil).  However, on a larger scale, something that goes unappreciated is the large impact of diseased beets (mostly from Cercospora leaf spot) on the increased impurities in the sugar purification and processing stream.  Impurities clog filtration points and prevent sugar crystallization---end result being a lower "recoverable sugar per ton" of beets brought into the factory.  For this reason, each grower has to weigh....as a cooperative member...how much to gamble on putting the processing stream at risk.  In the end, the payment to growers will be calculated not just on tons delivered to the factory, but on sugar produced from beets received.  

It's considered a 'minor' crop by total acres planted standards.  But all of ag *can* move in a better direction and seems to be doing so as the grass roots stay invigorated, involved, aware, and active.  

Edited to add that, as for many other crops, sugar beet production is testing all of the different cover cropping, no-/minimum-tillage and other approaches seen in other crops, albeit a bit more slowly.  It's a lucrative crop for the producer, but as a minor crop nationally and world-wide, it doesn't have the finances that the soybean/corn juggernaut enjoys for research trials.
 
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C. Letellier wrote:I am going to say the answer is yes.  The first modern soil science seminar I went to, one of the speakers was no till potato farmer from Colorado.  They were doing a 2 year rotation and only doing spuds every other year.  So if it works on spuds that have to be dug surely it can be made to work in beets.  Here is one of the videos from that speaker.  If you hunt the internet he has several others.



This was the first person that came to my mind as well. To be clear though, for anyone who doesn't want to watch the video, the Rockeys are not no till farmers. They rotate back and forth with half their land in cover crop/mob grazing cattle and half in potatoes. The half that is in potatoes has a border and strip down the middle of insect habitat and the potatoes are planted along with a mix of peas, buckwheat, and a couple other companions.

His presentation is pretty awesome and seems like it could work with beets
 
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Marco Banks wrote:If you had enough land, you could rotate crops:

Year 1: Sugar Beets

Year 2: Cash crop (corn/beans/grain) with a cover crop.

Do people no-till plant the beets?  That would be at least one-less turning of the soil.

As I understand it, sugar beets can't be harvested until the temperatures are in a certain lower range, and if it gets too hot, you can' harvest them at all.  Because they are harvested so late in the fall, it's difficult to think of planting a cover crop after they've been taken off the field because there wouldn't be enough time and warm days for the crop to germinate and grow.  But could you sew a cover crop between the beet rows once the beets have gotten big enough that the cover crop wouldn't compete for sunlight?



Yep.....even back in 2011 they were working with oilseed radish as a cover crop to reduce cyst nematode damage and reproduction in sugar beet.  Just one example that came to mind:

"Oilseed radish cover crops in sugarbeet rotations improves nematode control

Steve Poindexter, Michigan State University Extension - February 11, 2011

Oilseed radish acreage has steadily increased in the beet producing area because of its value as a sugarbeet nematode trap crop and its ability to deeply root in the soil, improving soil drainage and aeration. Established in late summer it can exceed four tons of biomass per acre. It is an excellent scavenger of nitrogen from deeper soil layers after harvest of a cash crop. Upon decomposition, the nitrogen becomes available to the next crop....."

https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/oilseed_radish_cover_crops_in_sugarbeet_rotations_improves_nematode_control

As an aside, the near zero degrees F. slated for this evening will aid immensely in freezing the large piles of sugar beets that now exist in the valley.  One perk of this frozen region is keeping stored beet metabolism low so that sugar losses are minimized before the piles are hauled away to the factory throughout the winter.

 
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I would think beets could be “harvested “ with pigs. They can get them out with less disruption than a mechanical method and they could do it all winter. They will dig them under snow per Joel. As others have mentioned sugar beets are mutants of ridiculous size, but other beets would be great. I know Gabe has a “competitor” who uses turnips, and in a milder climate ( I think the guy who does turnips is in Saskatchewan) the beets might be productive. I have tried beets as a winter crop with poor production, and since the seeds are MUCH more expensive I went back to turnips and radishes. For pig fodder grown over summer I have no data, I seed out in the fall after the late summer mow which simulates a harvest I guess.

I would be concerned with a high seeding rate, I only use 5# of radish seeds on 5 acres of fields and 2# of turnips on the same fields (the seeds are tiny compared to radish).

In terms of the moisture retention problem , I would think the answer is dry stemmy biomass from the summer trampled in by the pigs. Sunflowers and sorghum would be awesome. Sesbania shows promise as well and is a nitrogen fixer. The pigs would need some different housing up north, but I can see a rotation every four years or so that might be really good. I am trying to get a good forage mixture for sheep and a big part of that is Saltinic disruption as the soil improves to deepen the topsoil layer. Pigs in rotation would be awesome. Right now I can see even the chicken wallows come back lush and I want to up my game.
 
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