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Nation’s largest sugar beet seed producer expands its Kimberly research facility

An aerial shot of the Betaseed farm site. The individual seed plants are covered in bags that isolate the plants and collect pollen. The new farm site also has areas for seed plant isolation and testing. Photo courtesy of Betaseed.

North America’s largest producer of sugar beet seed is expanding its local research facility for work that will give growers the choice of three different herbicides to control weeds without harming their crops.

Betaseed, Inc., broke ground in January on a $7 million expansion that will increase seed processing and storage capacities and add more greenhouse and office space. The project should be complete by April, said Betaseed President John Enright.

In 2008, Monsanto Co. released sugar beet seed genetically modified to resist glyphosate herbicide, sold under the brand name Roundup. Today,
almost all of U.S. sugar beet acres are planted in glyphosate-resistant seed.

Monsanto Co. partnered with Betaseed’s European parent company, KWS Saat, to develop the latest transgenic trait, which confers herbicide resistance to glyphosate, glufosinate and dicamba, thereby providing growers with more “tools” to control weeds and stave off herbicide-resistant weeds.

“In other markets, we are seeing resistant weed populations for glyphosate and other herbicides,” Enright said. “We’re anticipating growers will need additional tools in the future.”

Betaseed’s headquarters in Kimberly. The company plans to add research and greenhouse facilities. Photo courtesy of Betaseed.

Enright said the expansion will help Betaseed produce the necessary research and documentation required under USDA’s process of
deregulating a GMO crop. He said the company hopes to launch its first commercial sales by 2024 or 2025.

Betaseed’s Kimberly facility opened in the early 1970s and employs 31 full-time workers. Enright said the expansion shouldn’t have much effect on staffing levels.

Sugar beet plants. File photo.

Nurseries at the Kimberly facility focus on breeding for resistance to three major diseases of sugar beets – curly top, powdery mildew and Rhizoctonia, said Betaseed’s vice president of sales and marketing, Mark Schmidt. About half of the breeding program at Kimberly – which serves the western growing region – is devoted to curly top. The curly top virus is spread by insects called leaf hoppers and has been a longstanding problem in Idaho. Breeding for strong curly top resistance typically comes at the expense of potential sugar accumulation in beets. Much of Betaseed’s focus in Kimberly is on striking the right balance.

Duane Grant, a Rupert farmer who serves as chairman of the grower cooperative that owns Amalgamated Sugar, called Snake River Sugar Co.,
said the industry is also optimistic that research will uncover an alternative resistance gene that doesn’t work at the expense of sugar content.

If left unchecked, Grant said curly top can “decimate a sugar beet field and lead to yields below the economic threshold to even harvest.”

Sugar is big business in Idaho and eastern Oregon. Amalgamated has nearly $1 billion in annual revenue and 1,250 fulltime employees, Grant said.

The new trait will fill a pressing need, given that glyphosate-resistant weeds – including koshia – have already begun to surface in Idaho, said Don Morishita, a University of Idaho weed science professor and superintendent of UI’s Kimberly Research & Extension Center.

“We conducted surveys for glyphosate-resistant weeds during the last three years, and we saw increasing numbers in western Idaho and eastern Oregon,” Morishita said, adding glyphosate resistance still hasn’t been detected in weeds in the Magic Valley or the Upper Snake River Plain.

However, Morishita offered caveats about the two other herbicides chosen for the new trait. He said dicamba resistance has also been detected in Idaho – mostly on roadside weeds that have been treated by highway departments. He advises growers to be wary of dicamba drifting into nearby potato fields and causing damage. As for glufosinate, he said it’s less effective in Idaho’s dry climate and works better in more humid regions.

About John O'Connell