sugar beet tractor

Nebraska sugar beet producers experienced a cluster of huge setbacks last season in the form of freezes, snowstorms and the loss of irrigation water due to a collapse of the Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation District tunnels.

Last year, the Nebraska Panhandle – where 90% of the Nebraska sugar beet crop is grown – had a cooler, wetter growing season, said UNL Extension agent John Thomas.

“The harvest still came through but it wasn’t as good,” he said. “The early hard freezes damaged the beets for processing.”

Sugar beets are considered a specialty crop, but it is a crop of great significance to the state economy. The crop is estimated to contribute more than $130 million to the local economy, according to UNL CropWatch.

The counties of Scotts Bluff, Morrill and Box Butte account for the majority of the 40-60,000 acres of sugar beet farmland. CropWatch records indication Sheridan, Banner, Kimiball, Cheyenne, Chase, Keith and Perkins Counties have shown steady increases in acreage.

Irrigation is the primary reason the sugar beet industry thrives in western Nebraska. That is why the tunnel collapse of July 2019 hit the producers especially hard. Not only did they lose water to their crops, they will be footing the bill for the repairs in the form of increased water fees, according to GFLID statements. Stacked on that adversity was a couple of winter weather events that caused damage to the harvest-ready crops.

The federal government has decided to step in and help. According to Jessica Groskopf, UNL agriculture economist, initially Wildfire, Hurricane and Indemnity Program Plus (WHIP+) funding has been designated for area cooperatives. The WHIP+ offers financial assistance to producers in order to offset losses from qualifying natural disasters that occurred in 2019, she said.

That has recently been changed. According to a USDA spokesperson, that changed in December 2019, with signing of the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020. The FCA Act made sugar beet cooperatives responsible for distributing the assistance, and it set aside $285 million of the $1.5 billion for this. USDA records show that Western Sugar Cooperative is set to receive $69,188,485 of the $285 million. Western Sugar is comprised of, and represents, the majority of sugar beet farmers in Nebraska.

USDA guidelines stipulate that the coop will establish its own signup deadlines and may start to distribute funds as soon as they are able, but no later than Jan. 30, 2021. In addition, Scotts Bluff County has been designated a “primary natural disaster area” by the Secretary of Agriculture. This also includes Banner, Box Butte, Morrill and Sioux in Nebraska, as well as Goshen County in Wyoming.

This designation opens the USDA’s Farm Service Agency emergency loan program in all of the named counties, the USDA spokesperson said. Producers can visit with their county FSA farm loan staff to discuss the program, as well as other FSA farm loan tools, she said. The deadline to access these emergency loans is Oct. 7, 2020.

Another resource available to sugar beet producers is Whole Farm Revenue Protection insurance. A list of crop insurance agents is available on the Risk Management Agency website at

Jon Burleson can be reached at

Jon Burleson is the Midwest Messenger reporter, based out of eastern Nebraska. Reach him at