LOVELL, Wyo. – On a recent sunny new autumn day, Western Sugar Cooperative shareholder Jody Lynn Bassett reflected on yet another “campaign” kickoff for Big Horn Basin sugarbeet co-op producers in northern Wyoming. Like the 90 degree weather on this particular day, Bassett warmly glowed about Lovell’s agricultural business hub and the prospects of some nice four-times-a-year contract paydays for the beets.
“Western Sugar is the heart of this community,” said Bassett, who’s involved with husband Jeff and four strapping boys farming beets eight miles east of Lovell at the base of the Big Horn Mountains. “We are right here in the center of town, it’s what you first see when you come into our town. It’s all about the growers here in the area and the culture of the employees that work here at the factory. The businesses in Lovell all feed off Western Sugar.
“And yes, sugar prices are now at their all-time highs.”
Bassett explained that being a shareholder and part of the Western Sugar Cooperative is not really a complex relationship. Sugarbeet growers purchase and own shares – “Patron Preferred Shares” – one for each sugarbeet acre they own. They enter into an agreement with the Western Sugar Cooperative to raise an acre of sugarbeets per share. If a cooperative farmer owns 100 preferred shares he must grow and deliver 100 acres of sugarbeets during the season. He has a contract to do so.
In return, the cooperative must process and market the sugar and its by-products for that guaranteed quarterly income back to the shareholders.
Many shareholder growers farm their own sugarbeets and get them eventually delivered over to the Lovell factory (there are eight nearby piling stations where growers first drop off their beets), where the roots are ultimately processed into bulk industrial sugar. Shareholders can lease out their acres, but still must make sure the beets from their land are raised and delivered to the Lovell factory.
In addition to market prices, the contract dictates that prices paid to the shareholders also include the percentage of sugar content in the beets. Weather plays a role, but growers will do their darnedest to create the sweetest beets. And they know how. Most along the Shoshone River have family lineage who have raised the crop for decades.
“Everybody has a vested interest in the co-op,” said Bassett. “That’s why it works.
“The co-op formed in 2002. All of the farmers had been growing sugarbeets for years; it’s what they did. Plus, they had all of the farm equipment and machinery to raise and deliver the beets. So when the opportunity came up to join (Western Sugar Cooperative), most everybody in this area did.”
The Great Western Sugar Company, which started in 1903 with plants in Loveland and Greeley, Colo., operated for decades in the five-state region of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and Montana, including the factories in Lovell and Billings. From 1985 to 1992, the historic Lovell factory, built in 1916, was operated by Tate & Lyle, a private English company, under the name Western Sugar Company.
More than 1000 growers formed the Western Sugar Cooperative in 2002. Fort Morgan, Colo.; Scottsbluff, Neb., and Torrington, Wyo., are the other Western Sugar Cooperative factory locations. The board of directors are based in Denver.
Ray Bode heads the beet slicing operations in Lovell and Billings. He almost puts an index finger to his lips with a “shh-don’t-tell-anybody” description of the working relationship between growers and Western Sugar workers in the Lovell area. It’s good, almost cozy.
“Lovell is the smallest operating sugarbeet factory in the entire country,” said Bode, who expands his working staff to 100 from 35 during the September to February beet processing campaign. “It’s just a neat little place and the growers here produce the best beets each and every year.
“Part of it is the climate; we have the nice, warm summer days here with the cool nights. But I think because the factory is small and this is such a tight-knit community, we also have exceptional people who work here.
Experienced beet guys. Ideal climate. Dedicated factory workers. A great cooperative.