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Red River Valley sugar beet harvest begins

After a month of preliminary digging, the American Crystal Sugar Co. beet harvest was scheduled to begin full tilt at midnight Tuesday, meaning hundreds of big trucks will be rumbling over roads up and down the Red River Valley. The "stockpile" harvest start was moved up one day from its traditional first minute of Oct. 1 because of forecasts for rain Thursday and Friday, according to the company's Web site late Tuesday.

Stockpile harvest, after a month of "pre-pile," brings a safety concern that American Crystal takes seriously, a company official said. The company issues cautions to growers and residents to watch for the stepped-up harvest and road activity, said Jeff Schweitzer, spokesman for the Moorhead-based, grower-owned cooperative.

In fact, an 18-year-old woman was killed Tuesday afternoon in Wahpeton, N.D., in a three-vehicle accident that included a semi-trailer hauling beets for the other sugar beet cooperative in the southern the valley, Minn-Dak Farmers, the North Dakota Highway Patrol said.

The patrol said Antoinette Gjesdahl was driving a 2005 Pontiac about 1:30 p.m. and entered an intersection on the Interstate 29 bypass on the west side of Wahpeton when her vehicle was hit by a 2005 International semi-truck and trailer driven by Cathleen Dean that was hauling sugar beets from Barney, N.D., to the Minn-Dak processing factory in Wahpeton. The Pontiac was pushed into a third vehicle at the intersection, driven by Mary Motzko, 38, of Wahpeton. She and the truck driver were taken to the local hospital for treatment; Gjesdahl was dead at the scene, the patrol said. The crash is being investigated.

A ton of trucks

American Crystal's 875 growers will gear up several thousand trucks to move the beets from their fields to one of dozens of field stations, and Transystems Inc. will run its dozens of semi-trucks hauling the beets from stations into the five processing factories in East Grand Forks, Crookston, Moorhead, Hillsboro, N.D. and Drayton, N.D.

During the preliminary "pre-pile" period of beet digging in September, the growers harvest about 10 percent of their crop to get the factories up and running for the processing campaign that will continue until the end of May.

The stockpile harvest that usually begins the first hour of Oct. 1 just about every year can take 10 to 20 days, with some growers digging 24 hours a day, and others on 12-hour shifts, depending on the schedule of the grower-owned co-op.

There always is a rush to the stockpile beet harvest as the valuable but bulky crop needs to be dug and hauled in fast because October weather isn't always cooperative, Schweitzer said.

The average yield looks to be 24 tons an acre, which means several truckloads per acre will need to be hauled for each of the 442,000 acres to be harvested in the Valley. It adds up to lots of extra truck traffic.

"So, safety is a big focus for shareholders," he said. "It's important that everyone goes about their business in a safe manner."