Minnesota's sugar beet farmers beat the odds this fall with American Crystal Sugar farmers piling up a record 12.7 million tons of beets in a growing season cycling between wet and dry spells.

Not only were the beets big, but they also were loaded with sugar, which gets used for sweetener in soft drinks to candy bars to baked goods.

"You tell me what happened," Harrison Weber, executive director with the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, said. "We were getting reports in the [Red River] Valley that were kind of hit-and-miss."

But this fall, particularly in late August and September, the rain arrived. When farmers went back into the fields in October, they reaped blockbuster yields. Weber attributed seed genetics to the increasing productivity.

"The beets were disease-free," Weber said. "We ended up having a record."

Minnesota growers are the most productive in the nation, producing roughly a third of the nation's overall crop of beets. During the fall in western Minnesota, stretching up to the Canadian border, it's common to see beets piled along roads. Factories owned by three cooperatives run from early fall through the end of spring.

Minnesota's beet farmers are concentrated in the Red River Valley. But there's a swath of farmers in and around Renville County — located midway between Minneapolis and the South Dakota border — who also farm the sucrose-laden hardy root vegetable.

Todd Geselius, vice president of agriculture for the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative, reported that their farmers had the second-best harvest by-volume in their history, harvesting 3.94 million tons.

Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative, headquartered in Wahpeton, N.D., also finished their season with strong numbers, notching yield just shy of 30 tons an acre, for a total harvest of 2.85 million tons.

A lingering uncertainty remains, however, for how the negotiations over the massive federal Farm Bill, an omnibus that authorizes crop insurance to a loan program for domestic producers, will shake out for sugar beet growers.

The domestic sugar policy — benefiting both beet farmers in the north and sugarcane farmers in the south — is built into the Farm Bill, which was last revised in 2018, said Robert Johansson, director of economics and policy analysis for the American Sugar Alliance, which represents producers.

In November, Congress agreed to a one-year extension of the bill. But farmers across commodities, including sugar beet farmers, say the bill needs to be modernized before expiration next September.

"Inflation was very different back then. Supply chain was very different back then," Johansson said. "We've had a trade war with China since then, and we've had a pandemic."

The U.S. Sugar Program in the past has been called the "candy-coated cartel" by the Cato Institute. Critics argue domestic sugar policy drives up the cost of sugar for American consumers and confectioners.

In October, the Government Accountability Office released a report calling for a review of tariff rates for foreign countries that import sugar. The report said those rates are based on decades-old data encompassing countries that no longer import sugar to the U.S.

Still, representatives for farmers in Minnesota and North Dakota say the industry generates more than 30,000 jobs and delivers $6 billion in value to the economy.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, one of the leading Democrats on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in a statement that sugar beet farmers "will be included in the Farm Bill."

"Without the sugar program in the Farm Bill, there would be much less sugar grown in America," Johansson said. "We would outsource that to countries that heavily subsidize their farmers, like Brazil and India."

Johansson also added farmers in sugar country, such as the Red River Valley, would be going out of business.

As it stands, the beet farmers, at least this year, were so productive they left some beets in the field.

"Our goal is to run factories at 100% efficiency," Weber said.

That means farmers and factory operators will be satisfied this holiday in the sweetest season of the year.