Western Sugar Coop shutters Greeley beet factory

GREELEY – The sugar giant on Greeley’s east side has been put to sleep, as officials quietly closed the factory permanently this summer.

The factory, owned by the Western Sugar Cooperative, was shuttered for the 2003-2004 processing campaigns, with continuing drought conditions cited as the reason. As the number of acres harvested in Weld County increases from 2003 levels, one has to wonder why the cooperative would keep the factory closed in 2004 and then remove equipment altogether this year?

The answer can be found in comparing the cost of workers to staff the plant with the transportation costs associated with shipping beets to Fort Morgan, site of the state’s only remaining sugar beet-processing plant.

In 2002 – its last year of operation – the Greeley factory employed 110 seasonal employees, 64 full-time employees and 38 maintenance workers.

Even if seasonal employees worked 40 hours a week for just minimum wage, the cooperative would have spent at least $450,000 on salaries alone. The average campaign lasts from September to January or approximately 20 weeks.

By closing the plant, the cooperative saved the cost of seasonal employees, plus maintenance on the machinery.

The closure of the plant also allowed the cooperative to slice the number of full-time employees to 24 in 2005. The plant still employs nine additional seasonal employees who work at the receiving station.

Instead of running the Greeley plant, the cooperative trucks the beets 65 miles east to Fort Morgan. In 2003, the average price of diesel was $1.60 per gallon. In 2005, prices are averaging $2.50 per gallon with no relief in sight.

The Fort Morgan plant has a higher “beet-slicing capacity” and is coal-fired, where Greeley is gas-fired. The cooperative reports the additional freight costs are more then offset by the differential in plant operations costs.

The increase in gas prices has many cooperative members wondering if shipping beets to Fort Morgan makes fiscal sense, but Kent Wimmer, government relations specialist with the cooperative, said the savings are still there.

“Economics weighed into the closure of the plant, and when we looked at where our crop allocations are located, the closure just made the most sense,” Wimmer said.

The cooperative is also shipping Larimer and Weld County sugar beets to its Torrington, Wyo., plant.

In the early 1900s, Great Western Sugar operated 10 factories in Northern Colorado, including locations in Windsor, Longmont, Loveland, Johnstown and Fort Collins.

The plants closed for a variety of reasons over the years, including consolidation, but urban growth is the latest factor in plant closures.

As the cities expand, farmers sell their land for development, removing local acreage for sugar beets and other crops. Some farmers move to eastern Colorado, while others call it quits. Either way, eastern Colorado is now the agricultural powerhouse for the state and it didn’t make sense for the cooperative to have a plant located in the middle of the Front Range’s growth path. The plant was located in an area of high growth with traffic concerns and public grumblings about odor.

Growth may have encouraged the closure of the plant, but it hasn’t knocked Weld County out as the leading sugar beet producing county in the state.

“Closing the plant didn’t stop the cycle of sugar beet growth in Weld County,´ said Fred Peterson, Weld County director of the Colorado State Cooperative Extension.

Peterson pointed to figures recently released by the Colorado Agricultural Statistics Service reporting 9,000 acres of sugar beets harvested in the county in 2003, compared with 12,700 acres harvested the following year.

“Since the plant has been closed since 2002, I feel all the impact from the closure has taken place,” Peterson said. “They may have said they were closing it for one campaign to see if Fort Morgan could handle all the beets.”

CSU receives gift from Five Rivers Ranch

LAMAR – Five Rivers Ranch Cattle Feeding LLC, the joint venture of the merged ContiBeef and MF Cattle Feeding, donated the company’s research facility in Lamar to Colorado State University. The gift, valued at $2.5 million, establishes the Southeastern Colorado Research Center and five-year funding of a departmental professorship at the center.

“The Southeastern Colorado Research Center will enhance our ability to provide relevant, up-to-date information to agricultural professionals and the feedlot industry across the state and the nation,´ said Bill Wailes, head of the Department of Animal Sciences, in a prepared statement. “As well, students from Colorado State will gain a valuable opportunity to learn and conduct research in a realistic setting while benefiting from direct educational benefits through interaction with Five Rivers Cattle Feeding.”

Kim Lock is the agriculture reporter for the Northern Colorado Business Report. To suggest column ideas contact her at (970) 221-5400 ext. 222 or at klock@ncbr.com