Idaho Grower Trailblazes Industry-Changing Technology

Duane Grant never set out to be an agricultural pioneer. He just wanted to continue the family farm and make his dad proud.

Grant grew up on his father Douglas’s farm in Southern Idaho and contributed from an early age, eventually joining the operation full-time after high school.

Since he joined the operation in 1980, he has become the CEO of Grant 4-D Farms and guided a more than 50-fold increase in the farm’s size and production. Grant 4-D Farms grows sugarbeets, potatoes, seed potatoes, wheat, malt barley, corn, and hay on its farms in Southern Idaho and Eastern Oregon.

“Hard work and technology fueled the growth,” said Grant, who is also the chairman of Amalgamated Sugar Company.

And no technology has been as revolutionary as sugarbeet seeds that are bioengineered to resist weed-killing herbicides – a process commonly called GMO. Grant credits the invention with reducing the industry’s environmental footprint as well as saving countless farms from ruin.

“My family has been involved in agriculture since migrating from Scotland more than 100 years ago,” Grant said. “We are now seeing the next generation working on our family farms, and it is an incredible feeling to know that thanks to advancements like biotechnology our operations can continue to contribute to the local economy and the nation’s food supply.”

Like many farms in his area, sugarbeets are at the heart of Grant’s operation. But the crop was becoming harder and harder for families like his to produce.

“Beets are a nightmare to grow because of weeds,” he explained. “Sugar farmers can go bankrupt if they can’t successfully control weeds. That used to mean a rigorous regimen that required lots of money, lots of chemicals, and lots of people working long hours.”

So, in the early 2000s, Grant dedicated himself to bringing the same GMO technology to sugarbeets that was benefitting corn and soybean farmers.

Numerous field trials testing genetically-modified beets were conducted on Grant’s farm. He was one of the first farmers who agreed to take the leap of faith and commercially plant a GMO sugarbeet crop in 2007. And, he was deeply involved with a U.S. Department of Agriculture advisory committee charged with charting a course for the future of biotechnology.

By 2008, other sugarbeet farmers were eager to enjoy GMO’s benefits, and nearly 60 percent of U.S. beet production had shifted. Just one year later, bioengineered seeds accounted for 95 percent of the nation’s sugarbeet crop.

Since the introduction of GMO sugarbeet seed, Grant said per acre productivity has accelerated to the point where growers associated with Amalgamated Sugar get twice as much production from less than half the amount of inputs they did 15 years ago.

This means less spraying of herbicides; less tilling and stripping of the land, which leads to erosion; and less need for costly farm equipment that burns fossil fuels.

“When I was a kid, the valley where we grow used to turn brown from wind-blown soil erosion caused by traditional sugarbeet tillage practices.” Grant said. “That doesn’t happen anymore…we stay green and it’s thanks to the genetically modified seed.”

In fact, scientific studies show that bioengineered sugarbeets have reduced ecotoxicity and environmental risk by 92 percent and 98 percent respectively. And this technology has enabled farmers to utilize better farming practices that have cut soil-derived carbon emissions by 80%.

And with sugar prices low and stagnating, and with production costs climbing, the development of GMO sugarbeet seed also helped alleviate the economic squeeze of weed control that was crippling Grant and his neighbors.

In short, more sugarbeets are being produced on less land, and it’s being done in a more economical and environmental way.

“Best of all, when the natural sugar contained in beets is extracted during the refining process, the resulting table sugar is identical to sugar from non-GMO beet or cane sugar,” Grant said, “which is important to some consumers.”

Grant is astonished when he sits back and thinks about how far his farm and the industry has come in just the past decade.

“It’s fitting to describe the journey as a ‘tough row to hoe,’” he said of the farming metaphor used to describe a challenging task. “But it’s been well worth it. We’ve saved farms, helped families, and improved the environment by making sugar more sustainable.”

Needless to say, his father would be proud.

Sugarbeet Co-Products Fuel Champions and Create Opportunities

And the winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby is _____________.

Regardless of the name filling in the blank, chances are good that a race-day food derived from sugarbeets powered them across the finish line. That’s because most Kentucky Derby participants, including Triple Crown champion American Pharoah, feast on sugarbeet pulp before heading to the starting gate.

Pulp is the tissue of the beet left over after sugar is extracted, and it’s prized in equine circles as a dietary additive because it is fiber-rich, full of energy and aids digestion.

Midwest Agri-Commodities is a California-based company that sells beet pulp on behalf of four sugarbeet cooperatives in Michigan, Minnesota and North Dakota. Each year, they market 1.7 million tons of sugarbeet co-products for U.S. farmers.

“A big percentage of our business is feed, and there’s a lot that goes into it,” explained Andy Ford, the company’s president.

Beet pulp isn’t exclusively used by prized thoroughbreds. Beef cattle, dairy herds, pigs and other livestock all eat it, and you can find the pulp in many pet foods. Pulp is shipped to farms and feedlots in many forms, too, including pellets and shreds – the dried, non-pelleted form of pulp most favored by horses.

“Our entire company is rooted in sustainability – in repurposing leftovers to help sugar farmers use every part of their crop and make a little extra money during the tough times,” Ford explained.

And this U.S. sustainability story stretches to the far corners of the globe.

Japan is the biggest importer, buying 190,000 to 200,000 tons of sugarbeet pulp every year for its dairy industry.

“We are the dominant supplier to Japan, and we are in the process of replicating that success elsewhere,” said Ford, who was born and raised in Japan and has a background in logistics.

Europe and Northern Africa are areas where Midwest Agri-Commodities also has a strong presence. Exploring and expanding into new markets is a big company goal.

A recent collaborative effort, involving many within the U.S. sugar industry, resulted in America becoming the first country to gain import approval for sales into China. Midwest Agri-Commodities sent 70,000 tons to China’s livestock sector in 2018 before ongoing trade disputes stalled further sales.

“I take pride when I market internationally in knowing that America’s beet pulp quality and reputation is unmatched,” Ford said.

The company often sees a premium price for its exports, and Ford said the Made-In-America brand is the reason.

“Our quality and the dependability of our delivery logistics set us apart,” he said, “and it’s why I’m so bullish about the future of these sustainable products.”

There’s good reason to be confident because, in addition to feed, Midwest Agri-Commodities and others in the sugar industry are investing in research and constantly finding new and inventive uses of sugarbeet and sugarcane waste.

Pulp is being used as mulch for mushroom production, de-sugared liquid removed from beets is used in the construction industry to make adhesives and concrete hardener, and beet juice is even being applied to roads throughout the United States, including Washington, D.C., to melt away ice and snow.

Ford thinks that’s just the beginning of what’s possible.

Beet byproducts are in development for things as varied as sports drinks, cosmetics, paint and even a replacement for Styrofoam containers.

“Sugar has an exceptional sustainability story to tell,” he concluded. “We’ve been focused on it a long time, and as long as a strong U.S. sugar policy remains in place, I think we’ll be supplying consumers with world-class sugar and co-products for a long time to come.”

DID YOU KNOW?