Member Profile: A Sugar Beet Farmer’s Way of Life
Sarah Rachor is a fourth generation sugar beet farmer in the lower Yellowstone Valley. This year marks her second year of farming full-time. She is now the primary operator of Fresh Hopped Farm. Sarah is married and has an eight-year old daughter. Prior to farming full-time she worked as a photographer and still photographs the occasional wedding. Sarah has experienced life off the farm living in various parts of the country with the ultimate goal of returning to run the farm.
“I’m happiest up to my elbows in mud or driving a tractor for hours. I get to hang out in my own little paradise, watch the Yellowstone River flow by as bald eagles fly around me. But most importantly I get to bring my daughter along for the ride. To play in the mud, watch small plants grow, and teach her that our food doesn’t just appear at a store. At eight years old, she can already pick out what types of vegetables are in season, and why it’s important to search out local food.”
The Lower Yellowstone River Project and the opening of the Sidney Sugars Factory, formerly Holly Sugar, has helped provide the resources Fresh Hopped Farm has needed to grow. In addition to sugar beets the family grows spring wheat, alfalfa, soy beans, and have been known to experiment with canola, flax, potatoes, and carrots.
Sugar Beets 101
Sugar beets look a lot like a turnip with large white roots. They are typically planted in May and harvested in October. They grow best on irrigated land. Sarah said the soil type on the farm makes for ideal sugar beet growing conditions. In Montana there are 120 sugar beet growers in and around the Sidney area growing 34,000 acres of sugar beets. Montana has two sugar beet processing plants, Sidney Sugars and Western Sugar in Billings. Sarah says the factories produce not just sugar from the beets, but also molasses and pulp which is used for livestock feed.
As with any crop there are always growing challenges. Sarah said disease and weather can delay harvest. “Most sugar beets are produced using Roundup Ready Seed, which has increased our yields, but led to some weed resistance as well,” said Sarah.“Sugar beets are susceptible to late frost. Harvest is labor intensive, and finding good help has been difficult during the oil boom. Harvest can also drag on longer because beets are either to warm, too wet, or too cold don’t store well.”
Farmers have more to worry about than weather and crop disease. Low commodity prices present many challenges for farmers. Sarah said the most pressing issue she sees as a barrier to producers is the cost discrepancy between what products cost and what the farmer gets in return. “There is a reason so many of us are trying to expand our markets. We currently have the same price for spring wheat as when my dad started farming this place in 1979; however the costs to raise the same crops has exploded.”
Impacts of National Farm Policy
Like most producers and farm groups Sarah is closely following the legislative work on the Farm Bill. She recognizes that the policy shaped in D.C. will have an impact on Montana agriculture and her farm. “Trying to pass the Farm Bill this year is fascinating to watch, along with the NAFTA talks. I am pretty middle of the road politically, but anything agriculture related gets me fired up. I am only in my first full time year in this industry and most farmers can’t tell what is going to happen with commodity prices, which makes planting decisions harder than usual. But luckily we are an adaptable group, and used to uncertainty!”
Although in the infancy of her full-time farming career, Sarah has some words of advice for next generation and beginning farmers. “The first thing every farmer does is try to scare you out of farming by telling you all the horror stories, and there are plenty from droughts and floods, to accidents and angry family members. If after all that you still have the drive to get out there and do it, there are a lot of great resources, beginning with organizations like Farmers Union, and your local extension and FSA office. My advice is to start going to workshops and conferences. There is always opportunity to learn through field days and MSU Extension. If no one can scare you off, then give it shot. The worst thing that can happen is you fail, and you either dust yourself and try again, or move on.”
Beginning Farmers Institute
In addition to having her sights set on the daily operations and long-term success of the farm, Sarah is also getting involved at a state and national level with Farmers Union. Her first introduction to MFU was attending the annual Producer Conference in Havre. Sarah will now represent MFU by participating in the Beginning Farmer Institute, a program by National Farmers Union. “I’m hoping to learn how farms in other regions work, what struggles they face and how they adapt to things like drought and labor shortages, both issues I have to deal with in my area as well. Just meeting other beginning and experienced farmers from around the country is exciting. I love having a network of people to bounce ideas off of and hear about other things they are trying.”
As a member of the 2018-2019 BFI class Sarah will participate in three sessions. The first in September in Washington, D.C., the second in November in Northern California with the program completion in March at the National Farmers Union Annual Convention in Washington. We wish Sarah the best on her journey through the BFI program and as a next generation sugar beet farmer in Montana!