This week I am excited to have Rhonda Steiger share her perspective on sugarbeet farming in south central Montana. Rhonda’s blog post highlights the integral role that agricultural biotechnology plays in the continued success of America’s family farms.
By Rhonda Steiger
Hi! My name is Rhonda Steiger and my family farms in the Clark’s Fork Valley in south central Montana. We are tucked beneath the beautiful Beartooth Mountains and share the land with abundant wildlife.
Our farming roots can be traced back to 1800 when we farmed in Russia and Germany. In 1916 my ancestors emigrated to the United States. They spent one winter in Chicago, but quickly moved west to Montana after hearing about opportunities offered by the Great Western Sugar Company. Upon settling in Montana, my family grew sugarbeets, edible beans, grains and livestock. Life in Montana was hard. My grandfather and his siblings endured a life of manual labor. The hot summer sun would bare down on them as they walked their fields and hoed the weeds. The cold winds of the fall were difficult to tolerate as they spent the entire day literally hand lifting tons of sugar beets onto horse drawn wagons during harvest. Previous generations made huge, unimaginable sacrifices to survive. Slowly, a variety of technological advances came along to make things a little easier. My father, for example, can remember the first chemicals that were used in sugar beet production to control weeds and pests. These chemicals were handled in accordance to their approved uses. He attended pesticide training courses to ensure that he used them correctly. I can remember him using a tank mix of about five different chemicals which were applied every seven to ten days in the spring. There were times when rain or other unforeseen events made it impossible for him to get into the fields. When this happened, weed control was lost and we were forced to return to manual labor.
Even after the introduction of pesticides, sugarbeet farming was still very labor intensive. My dad worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week in April through October in an attempt to get a decent crop and provide for his family. But it wasn’t like my sister and I didn’t see our dad–quite the contrary. We both spent a significant amount of time with him, just following him around and learning the ropes. One day in particular had a huge impact on my life. When I was eight years old, my dad took me by the hand. We knelt on the ground and he wrote my name in the soil. “Rhonda, someday this land will be yours,” he said. At that point, I began to understand what it means to be part of a family farming legacy.
A few years ago, a change occurred that absolutely revolutionized sugarbeet production. We were given the opportunity to grow genetically engineered (RoundUp Ready) sugarbeets. As farmers, we have always prided ourselves on being good stewards of the land. RoundUp Ready sugarbeets have allowed us to go from good to great. Immediately following the introduction of RoundUp Ready sugarbeets, we cut the amount of herbicides we used by about 75 percent. We eliminated two trips across the field with a sprayer and another two trips across the field with a machine called a cultivator. A cultivator digs up the soil in between the rows to uproot the weeds, but it also releases greenhouse gases (sequestered carbon) and dries out the soil we have irrigated with precious water. Cultivation is widely used in conventional and organic farming.
I watch my children run free in the same fields that were filled with toil and labor generations before, and I reflect on the positive changes agriculture has seen in the past 100 years.
Now that we have had a few years to work with this new technology, we are working on implementing some other farming practices that have great benefit for the environment. We have converted to a reduced tillage cropping system. Before RoundUp Ready sugarbeets, we made an average of six trips across the field with a variety of different tillage machines before the crop was planted. Each trip across the field requires significant fuel usage. RoundUp Ready sugarbeets have allowed us to cut our farm’s fuel use by about 2,300 gallons.
As farmers, we understand the importance of water. We live in an area that receives less than 10” of rainfall per year. Saving water is absolutely critical. Every time a piece of tillage equipment is used water is lost. Roundup Ready beets are helping us conserve water as one of 25 environmental benefits using this technology.
These environmental benefits will improve the sustainability for our farm. I watch my children run free in the same fields that were filled with toil and labor generations before, and I reflect on the positive changes agriculture has seen in the past 100 years. We live in an area filled with great natural beauty and it is our responsibility to preserve it for years to come. Genetically engineered crops allow us to do this.