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Snow, and worry, blankets town in Nebraska

During fall harvest season, Rodney Adams, 64, and his son, who farms with him, worked around the clock to dig sugarbeets out of the ground before the freeze set in.  If they were delayed, there wouldn’t be enough to feed the Western Sugar Cooperative factory located less than a mile away.

And that affects the whole community.  Western is the area’s second biggest employer, next to the hospital, employing between 300 and 400 people depending on the time of year.

“It would be hard for me to imagine what this community would be like without sugar, without the industry,” said Tracey Bentley, the factory’s processing manager. “The number of jobs that people would no longer have…and then how that trickles down to everyone else. The people in the restaurants. The stores. The hospitals. The schools.”

The factory is really humming this time of year as workers prepare for a busy Easter sales season.

Machines load frozen beets from an enormous outdoor pile onto 18-wheelers, where they are whisked to a conveyor belt that takes them to be cleaned, sliced, and cooked to extract pure sugar.  The pulp that’s left over is then taken to local ranches to feed cattle wandering snowy pastures.

Nothing goes to waste, Bentley explains.

Things are a little slower on Rodney’s farm.  His beets are harvested, his fields are too frozen to tend and he has time to mend machinery that will help with the next crop.  He also has time to think and plan for the future.

Unfortunately, that brings him some trepidation.  Sugar prices tanked when Mexico broke U.S. trade law and flooded the market with subsidized imports years ago.  While that problem has been addressed, he says the aftereffects are still lingering.

“Sugar is at break-even or less right now so it’s made it difficult,” he said.

Adams, a fourth-generation farmer, said he’s hanging on by his fingernails.  Meanwhile, some of his neighbors are leaving the sugar business altogether.  Because the area’s farmers cooperatively own the local sugar factory, the pain of one sugar farm is felt by all.

Adams and his colleagues from hours away discussed the economic stress at a recent meeting of Nebraska sugarbeet farmers, which was held at the Gering Civic Center.  Though folks were happy to reconnect with neighbors, few were in high spirits.

The mood turned even more sour as farmers learned of legislative attempts by large food manufacturers to flood the U.S. market with more subsidized imports to drive prices lower.

“We’ve got families right now that are going out of business. And we’ve got farmers who are having to sell assets to continue to grow sugarbeets,” Adams explained.  “But we can only do this for so long. We’re as efficient as we can be. We’ve cut to the barebones now. And we do need help to keep this sugar business alive.”

Two area farmers recently flew to Washington, D .C., to deliver that exact message to lawmakers who may be unaware of the gravity their Farm Bill vote carries.

Folks in Scottsbluff are hopeful these beet emissaries will be successful.  The future of the town literally depends on it.

“Beets are the community, basically,” Adams said. “If we took beets out of this community, it would be devastating.”

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