This is Jim Shea - businesslike and a farmer, recipient of the Colorado sugar beet grower award for 1976. Each acre of one 33-acre beet tract on his farms produced an astounding 10,065 pounds of sugar. But last week, when he would normally have been planting his beets for this year, he was, instead, tending his dairy cows and worrying with his son Kelly over which cows in which lot were pregnant.
For despite his achievement of last year, Jim Shea will plant no sugar beets this year. Nor will the 153 other sugar beet farmers in this fertile western Colorado valley, because the Holly Sugar beet processing plant here has been closed. The plant shut down in February, a victim of low sugar prices that could not offset the rising costs of energy and environmental protection and of the inefficiencies of small-scale technology.
It was one of four beet processing plants in Colorado closed this year, and people seeking to restrict low-priced sugar imports say it is a hint of things to come unless import quotas are imposed.
Caught in a net of uncertainty over the future are the sugar beet farmers who have lost a traditional, dependable and valuable cash crop; the 250 permanent and seasonal Holly employees who shared a $1 million payroll, and the small and beginning farmers here who worked seasonal jobs at Holly to keep their farms going.
No one seems to know how these losses will be made up.
"We're in a helluva mess," said Keith M. Bond, president of the Western Colorado Beet Growers Association. The beets once accounted for only 6 per cent of farm cropland here but for 18 per cent of crop sales. "Nothing can compare, nothing can come close, Oh, it's going to hurt. It's really going to hurt."
One-third of the 450 acres that Bond farms with his father was in beets, and last year accounted for $100,000 - "half the income on this farm."
The closest other beet-processing plant is 250 miles away, too far for the beets to be shipped economically.
"If we can't get the [Holly] beet factory back," said farmer Chris Van Riper, "I'm just going to look at the whole thing and decide if I want to stay with it [farming]." His 299-acre farm turned a $16,000 profit last year, and Van Riper said that without sugar beets he will probably just break even this year.
Even with currently depressed sugar prices, many of the farmers here, blessed with good soil, a variety of crops and three rivers to irrigate their land, managed to break even last year on sugar. In addition, millions of dollars in specialized beet farming equipment now stand useless, some of it, like Van Riper's beet topper, not yet paid for.
Thus the beet growers made a study of taking over the 57-year-old Holly plant and running it as a cooperative so they could still plant sugar beets. A lack of time and an abundance of unknowns prevented that, however, and last week while Keith Bond mourned the loss, his father leveled a 60-acre beet site for corn.
The stony mesas that break up this valley on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains gleamed behind the older Bond to the north, and the clear afternoon sky was painted randomly with smoke plumes as distant farmers burned the past year's growth from their irrigation ditches.
The county extension office estimates that most of the 10,500 former beet acres in Mesa. Delta and Montrose counties will go into corn because local cattlemen need more corn for feed than the area has been producing, and that helps prices. But the new corn acreage is expected to produce a 1 million bushel excess that will drive corn prices down, spreading the impact of Holly's closing to non-beet farmers.
"Until we operate for a year, it's hard to tell what the impact will be," said Shea, who will probably put his usual 200 acres of sugar beets in corn, barley and other small grains. He does know, however, what the beet crop has meant in the past: "It's been the one that paid our bills."
Like in 1975, when beet prices were still high despite a slip fro 1974's record prices. That year, Shea, he took in $680 an acre on his 200 acres of beets - a total of $136,000 - and the profits offset heavy losses in his cattle feeding. Last year the receipts dropped to a little over $500 an acre, he said, and he $102,500 total "didn't start to pay the bills."
Shea said his two-year-old, 250-head diairy cow operation is not yet offsetting the beet loss. But, he said, "fortunately we have another way to go. WHether we make any money . . ."
Less fortunate, said the 45-year-old Shea, are the young and small farmers who, like himself 15 years ago, worked seasonally at Holly to make needed money their farms do not yet provide. Men like Walter Distel, up on Ash Mesa in adjoining Montrose County.
He farms 200 acres, 20 of it his own and the rest rented. Corp, beans, barley for Cooprs beer - these are his whirling at double speed around the vortex of the sunken Holly plant. He's lost his $5.40-an-hour, October-to-February laboratory job at Holly and faces reduced farm income because of the new areage going to corn.
"When we started farming 11 years ago, we started completely on our own with Farmers Home Administration. We borrowed just enough to get through the summer and we lived off that [his Holly job] in the winter," Distel said.
Everything that the farm earned went back into it, into repairs, new equipment, machinery.
This past year, the farm cleared almost $1,800; the job at Holly returned $5,200. "We are going to pay some income tax this year, but most of it will be on the money I made at the factory," said Distel, and that money will be hard to replace in any other operation or job."
There were 200 seasonal employees at Holly many of them farmers like Distel. The jobs fit them well: the October plant opening followed their harvests, and the February closing preceded their planting. For the 50 year-round employees, some will be transferred to jobs at other Holly plants, others will take their chances on the local Delta job market, and others say they do not know what will happen.
Charles A. Marshall, 61, is one of those. He has worked for Holly Sugar for 28 years, the past three in Delta. He is staying on to phase out the Delta plant for now, but after that "I don't know what Holly will offer me."
But for now, behind his desk in the glass-doored office labeled Agricultural Manager, Marshall delivers the official autopsy on the Delta plant's demise.
The biggest reason, he says is low sugar prices, prices reflecting the virtually unrestricted imports of foreign sugar into the United States. Then there's the natural gas used at the plant, with expensive fuel oil as a substitue when gas is not available. And a conversion to coal would be expensive since environmental regulations would restrict the discharge of pollutants.
Then there was the size of the plant - 1,700 tons of beets a day. The plant where Marshall worked before processed 4,000 tons a day with virtually the same number of workers. "But this (Delta plant) would pay its way if the price of sugar were justifiably so." Marshall said. A year ago, finished sugar sold for 18 cents a pound, now it is 15.7 cents a Marshall estimated it would have to go back up to 18 cents just to cover cost.
It is these gaps between production costs and selling prices that have led the U.S. International Trade Commission to declare imported, cane sugar a threat to the U.S. sugar industry and to recommend a reduction in imports from 4.5 million tons a year to something less than 4.4 million tons. The Carter administration is now formulating a sugar policy.
Imported sugar now sells for about 12 cents a pound raw, and refining costs from 3 1/2 to 5 cents a pound, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
That means a finished product of 15 to 17 cents a pound - far below the peak of about 45 cents a pound, wholesale, reached in late 1974. The windfall profits that found their way to the sugerbeet farmers here (they got two-thirds of Holly's wholesale price) went mostly to new equipment, repairs and farming improvements.
The true impact of the Holly closing will come this fall, when the seasonal workers look for replacement jobs or go on unemployment and when the beet growers miss their traditional initial payment from Holly and tote up instead the results of a season with different crops.
Closely watched will be the farmers raising 1,500 acres of sunflower seeds for processing into oil, which may prove to be the most promising replacement for beets, according to Gerry R. Marby, the extension agent for marketing who worked on a study of alternate crops.
He said it will take four to five years for the market to work itself out. Yet there is an optimism, a sense that these valley people can pull themselve through. "It's going to be felt," said Walter Distel, "but I think it'll come out all right."
With a nearby coal mining boom and an influx of escaping urbanites creating pressures for new housing, many farmers may find that after the beets and the corn, the barley and the sunflower seeds they will have one last cash crop: their land.