20 questions with: A sugarbeet farmer

Think you’re being a conscientious consumer when you choose cane sugar over beet sugar in the stores? Keep reading for real answers!

I always say Bart Icopini and I are friends by accident. Though we grew up in the same small town, he’s got a few years on me and lives on (gasp!) the south side of the Yellowstone. So our paths never did cross much and probably never would have… if he hadn’t married my kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade classmate and current crying-and-cheering-each-other-through-motherhood friend, Amber. This means that, whether he likes it or not, Bart and I have passed many a New Year, Fourth of July, Superbowl, and last-day-of-swimming-lessons celebrations together.

I do think I’m earning Bart’s friendship, slow but sure. He’s not long on words, as you’ll find below, nor on shows of emotion… but I know this much: He’s never asked me to get out of his house. Yet. Ha!

Amber is a Steiger. Bart is an Icopini. Both come from respected and successful Yellowstone Valley sugarbeet-farming families. I tease them that their kids are sugarbeet royalty.

But Bart isn’t riding on anyone’s coattails. Instead, he’s making a name for himself as a rising young agriculturalist with a keen eye for business, an appetite for lifelong learning, a tenacious work ethic, and a cavalier approach to thinking outside the old farm model.

Despite what you may have heard about the sugarbeet industry, I can attest to this much:  sugarbeet growers are not farm-subsidy-milking mongers on a mission to fatten our country with a dangerous, genetically-modified frankenstein of a product. Instead, they are intelligent, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth citizens doing the most ancient and most essential of jobs in a difficult modern landscape. I can assure you that they are held accountable by educated consumers and that they stay informed of how best to protect the wellbeing of their own families, as well as yours. They’ve figured out how to artfully coax plants out of acres and acres of soil — and I don’t know about you, but I have trouble growing a couple cucumber plants in the backyard. They sit across from me at the Thanksgiving table and back two aisles at church. They are my grandpa. My uncle. My cousin. My neighbor. And my friend.

Below, 20 questions with a farmer of my own generation…


1.  Hi, Bart! Tell me about the multi-generational farm where you were raised and where you’re now raising your own kids.

BI: Dad (Ernie) and grandpa (Ernest) started farming in Big Horn (about 15 miles up the river from Hysham, where we now live). They farmed some there, then, when Dad graduated from Custer High School, they moved to Hysham and rented farmground — at first close to the river and later, when the upper irrigation ditch was built around 1950, they moved up to the bench southeast of Hysham, and that’s where our home still is. I farm with my dad and my brother, Brent.


2.  Why was it important for you to finish college before you came back to the farm?

BI: Important, I’m not so sure. Fun, yes. It is good for kids to get away from their hometowns, at least for a while, and see other things and meet new people. I think being able to get through life on your own without family is a must if you plan to come back and work with your family.

3.  What crops do you grow on the place today, in order of importance?

BI: Sugarbeets, corn, wheat (spring and winter), yellow peas, safflower, and cover crops currently. In the past we have raised pinto beans and various other crops that we hayed.


4.  How did the Icopinis get started growing sugarbeets?

BI: I’m not quite sure what the backstory is. We have just always grown them, as far as I know, all the way back to the Big Horn days.

5.  Give me some background on the history of the U.S. sugarbeet industry.  If I remember correctly, Russian-German immigrants brought knowledge and seeds with them when they immigrated to the U.S.?

BI: Yes, that is the same story that “The German” (my name for Amber’s grandfather, also a beet farmer) told me. The climate here in our area is ideal for growing beets, so the sugar companies brought folks over from Russia to grow beets in the States.



6.  Walk me through the process of how a brown, basketball-sized sugarbeet turns into a bag of white sugar granules.

BI: Magic. Any more explanation might sound like I actually know something! Just kidding; very simply the process is purifications. The sugar factory makes that dirty beet into pure sucrose (sugar).

(Editor’s note: Bart’s scientific mind left me grasping for a more thorough answer here, so I dug deeper. Here’s what I found: First, of course, the beets are dug out of fields and hauled by truck to local beet piles. From there, they’re hauled on sugar-company-owned trucks to the sugar plant — the closest is in Billings, about 70 miles away. At the plant, the beets go through a rock-and-leaf screen, then are washed and sliced. The sliced beets go into a giant “diffuser” with hot water to extract the sugar — much like how we diffuse tea bags in hot water. The slices are pressed to get the last of the sweet juice out, and the remaining pulp can be sold as livestock feed. Next, the sweet juice is filtered, then turned into syrup through a steam-powered evaporation process. The syrup is then boiled until sugar crystals form! The resulting mixture of crystals and “mother liquor” is spun in a centrifuge. The sugar crystals are finally dried with hot air before they’re ready to sell.)



7.  Okay, Bart, I’m trying to avoid out-talking you here. Describe for me how sugarbeet growers organize together to market their product.  I believe that the sugar plant in Billings is grower-owned?

BI: Yes, we are part of the Western Sugar Cooperative. We run factories in four states and are governed by a board of directors who are beet growers themselves. In fact, all of the sugarbeet processors in the U.S. are cooperatives.

8.  There are two negative news topics that the modern sugar industry continually battles.  First, and this one has been going on for decades, is the reality that a healthy individual really shouldn’t eat much sugar.  Do you believe you’re producing a product that is hurtful to our society?

BI: No. Sugar consumption has actually gone down as all the health concerns are coming to light and as negative health factors are increasing. The real problem is that people equate sugar to all sweeteners. If we want to be truthful, we should see the word “sweeteners” in food labels’ nutritional facts, instead of just “sugar,” and then people wouldn’t fixate on “sugar” so much. The real problem lies in all kinds of sweeteners.


9.  A more recent struggle for the sugarbeet industry has been the emergence of Roundup Ready sugarbeet seed and society’s growing concern over GM (genetically modified) technology in food.  Why would a farmer plant a Roundup Ready seed?

BI: We use GM technology to control weeds. Our weed control has become so much better since we started using Roundup Ready seed. People would be surprised to know we are using a lot less chemical on our fields because of the new seed, and we are implementing many more sustainable farming practices on our operation now too. We are in a lot better position to withstand downturns in the market because of this technology.



10.  But many consumers are very concerned about the use of GMOs in their food.  Are their concerns legit?

BI: A much higher percentage of scientists believes that GM breeding is safe. “Legit”… I can’t speak for other individuals and their concerns. There are GMO websites written by scientists that talk about GM engineering in a positive light. I encourage your readers who might have concerns to look at some of these sites and learn our, the farmers’, side of the story. One of these websites is gmoanswers.com.  One other thing I’d like the average consumer to know: The modified gene that we are talking about is in the protein of the actual sugarbeet; there is no protein in the sucrose (C12H22O11) that we sell from the sugar plant.



10B (bonus question, ’cause Bart just loves answering my questions!):  So does the plant in Billings actually produce finished, bagged sugar — or are you just selling a sucrose product which goes to another plant somewhere to be finished?

BI:  Yes, the Billings plant produces and bags pure white sugar. Maybe I need to be a little more clear:  sucrose is pure white sugar. Nothing but carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. It does sound like it’s a chemical when you say sucrose, but that’s how simple sugar is — just a chain of life’s building blocks.




11.  Thanks for clarifying there!  So, let’s address another problem farmers like you are up against:  It seems like marketers are really trying to pit CANE sugar against SUGARBEET sugar these days; I often see bags of sugar marked specifically as CANE, which I would imagine speaks to the subconscious of the average consumer.  The two sugars look and taste the same to me.  Can you tell me the difference?  And the truth:  Is cane sugar harvested by magical fairies and processed by butterflies in the gentlest of manners, making it preferable?

BI: Sucrose is sucrose — remember, C12H22O11 — and sucrose is all white sugar is, no matter if it is cane sugar or sugarbeet sugar. Now, as far as the fairy harvest crew: Cane growers actually use more Roundup on the cane plant to kill it right at harvest time than we use on our beets all year long. What’s more, our applications go on in the spring and give the plant time to metabolize the chemical. The most important thing to remember, no matter what you see, is that sugar is sugar.




12.  I have to say, Bart, it stuns me that here we are, right smack in the middle of sugarbeet country, more than a thousand miles from the nearest cane plant, and the average consumer here walks into the grocery store and is accosted by “pure cane sugar” labels. The sad thing is, I think most consumers are so uneducated or, more likely, so indifferent that they throw the cane sugar into the cart and never consider that it’s a complete snub to local farms.  Can you tell me, are cane sugar and beet sugar ever mixed together and bagged under a generic label?  And while you’re at it:  Is the store-brand bag of sugar the exact same stuff as the name-brand sugar next to it on the grocery store shelf?

BI: Again, sugar is sugar. I’m not sure about the mixing, but I do know that United Sugars markets both cane and beet sugars. Store brand vs. name brand: Western Sugar is one of Walmart’s biggest suppliers in the intermountain region. That means our sugar is in Walmart bags, and it’s in a lot of other store-brand bags too. The problem is that people right now perceive cane as being safer, so cane sugar these days is selling at a premium over beet sugar… because consumers don’t realize they’re the exact same product: just sucrose.


12B. Sorry, second edit here, and I gotta sneak in yet another extra question. It seems to me that the problem is that you’re all being out-marketed. Why does the cane industry march lightyears ahead of the beet industry in terms of labeling and marketing its product?

BI: Good question, and it’s one I don’t have an answer for. We as growers in the past have asked the same thing and have gotten no answers.  (One answer might lie in the reality that sugarbeet farms are mostly independent, family-owned operations, while cane farms are more corporatized.)  Now we really can’t put “beet sugar” on the labels because of the GMO issue and general public perception.  Kinda makes you sick to think that because of misperception, you can’t advertise your commodity that you have put so much into.



13.  I’m so glad to hear you say all this, as I’ve been trying to get the word out for years now that we’re simply witnessing a total smear campaign against beet sugar! So does today’s sugarbeet industry view the cane industry as an ally or as competition?  Describe the national and international organizations that represent both.

BI: I would like to think that we are still allies. We both need to keep imports at bay and encourage people to eat real sugar vs. a different kind of sweetener. And I’m sure that eventually the cane industry will have some of its own GM issues to address. Brazil, one of the largest sugar producers in the world, is currently working to develop a GM cane to address plant disease issues… so their time is coming.

As for the representation, we both have our political groups that represent us to lawmakers, but we are also part of a big group called the American Sugar Alliance, which represents both beet and cane in Washington. Like it or not, the sugar industry has to be very political; we have to protect our domestic sugar program because every one of our international competitors has its own subsidies to protect its own farmers.  Furthermore, it’s not a level playing field internationally. Our international competitors are usually working under much less restrictive laws and safeguards than we are domestically.


14.  Outside of domestic cane sugar, name sugarbeet sugar’s biggest competitors.

BI:  Other than international sugar that comes across our borders, probably high fructose corn syrup and all the other sweeteners that give real sugar a bad name.


15.  Most every segment of the U.S. ag industry today has its own representative organization, complete with lobbyists in Washington and national representatives.  Why?  Do you personally serve on any boards?  Do you think it’s important to be involved?

BI: I think I covered that in the question above. We have to be political to protect our industry and way of life. Did you know that there are more people incarcerated than there are farmers? We don’t have a big population, so we have to be involved to be heard. I am not on any of these boards right now; I think it takes someone a little more political than me.


16.  Tell me something you would like every reader to know about the sugarbeet industry.

BI:  Buy sugar! We make a good, clean product that you can feel safe with.


17.  … And about what it takes to keep a family farm going.

BI:  It takes a lot of time. You have be fair and really mindful to balance all aspects of life.  It’s all one: our family, our work, our business, our money — everything has a direct connection, and it doesn’t work by accident.



18.  Bart, I grew up in agriculture and remain in agriculture today. My family is known for keeping some crazy hours. But I have to say, knowing what I know about you from being close with your wife, that you invest your whole self — physically, mentally, financially, maybe even spiritually — into the production and harvest of an annual crop. I would really like for the average U.S. consumer to appreciate the fact that we still have U.S. farmers — conscientious businessmen who are, again, working under domestic laws that are much more controlling than international competitors shoulder; who are trying to do what’s safe for their own families and, at the same time, what’s safe for U.S. consumers; who are working in an age of social media panic, where everything your industry does is up for public scrutiny, and even more so, public misinterpretation; and who are, best of all, maintaining the agricultural lifestyle and open lands across our country. All that said… what would you say is the greatest thing about being a farmer?  And what’s your favorite time of year?

BI: Honestly, it’s all wonderful, doing what you love, and you get to live where you want to be. My favorite time of year is tough to say. Spring is the time of anticipation: are your plans going to pay? Summer is the time of work: it’s good to sweat and get your hands dirty. Fall is harvest, and conclusion is good (good or bad). Winter is a time for much-needed rest and preparation. So to tell you I have a favorite season wouldn’t do justice to the joy of farming. You have to love them all to be a good farmer.




19.  What do you see in the future for U.S. farming?  For international food production?

BI: If I had a crystal ball, I would be in the fortune-telling business, not in farming. I just think that if people continue to trust our farmers, we will be okay.


20.  What do you like to do when you’re not farming?

BI: Relaxing with family and friends. But a farmer is truly never not farming. You always have skin in the game.


21.  Ha! Well put. Finally, the absolute last bonus question, I promise: What’s your favorite way to eat sugar?

BI: I have a friend who says this: It doesn’t matter how you use sugar. Dump it on the ground if you want to, I don’t care; just use it.

Well, you know me, Bart… I am an unabashed, unashamed consumer of sugar. I thank you and all the good farmers I know for doing everything I just listed up there in #18.




Bart Icopini with two of the next generation:  sons Kaleb and Nolan.  Icopini photo.

© Tami Blake

5 thoughts on “20 questions with: A sugarbeet farmer

  1. Imagine my surprise when at 22 years old I moved to Hysham and an actual sugar beet looked nothing like the mascot for Chinook High School! I love this – you do such a great job advocating/teaching for and about agriculture – thank you! Also, thanks for interviewing one of my all-time favorite and definitely smartest former students – it’s been well over 20 years since I’ve seen most of those “kids”, how neat!


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