Rural American Town Rocked by Food Factory Closure After Nearly 100 Years in Business, 300 Jobs Gone


It’s sobering to see the loss of urban American business.

Whether it’s the rubble of Detroit or East St. Louis, the post-industrial hulks in Gary, Indiana, or the decades-idle rusting blast furnaces still overlooking former steel town Pueblo, Colorado, it’s a sad sight.

And the decline of American business affects rural areas, too.

After nearly a hundred years, the Sidney Sugars processing plant in Sidney, Montana, is shutting down. The announcement came in a news release Monday from parent American Crystal Sugar Co.

The move will idle some 300 employees, according to KFGO-AM in Fargo, North Dakota.

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Unlike a lot of urban factory closures, the Sidney plant shutdown is not due to offshoring jobs to China or Mexico.

Rather, the sugar processing plant no longer can find enough farmers to grow sugar beets, according to the Western Ag Network.

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In the 1990s, 45,000 acres of sugar beets supplied the Sidney plant. But that number has drastically dropped.

“Last year there were only 18,400 acres contracted,” Steve Rosenau, vice president of agriculture for American Crystal Sugar and chief operating officer of Sidney Sugars, said in a statement.

“The year before that, 30,774,” Rosenau said. “With only 19,500 acres of sugar beets offered in the region for this coming spring, the Sidney operation is simply unprofitable.”

Farmers are switching from sugar beets to more profitable crops with fewer headaches, according to beet grower Don Steinbeisser Jr., citing an ownership change of the plant’s parent company about 20 years ago.

“We’ve been raising beets for them,” Steinbeisser said, according to the Western Ag Network. “But every so many years, we have to negotiate a new contract. We’ve been taking cuts [on] what the farmers have been getting paid.

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“We wanted to keep raising beets because we like the factory. We’ve been doing it for over 90 years as a family and it was important to us.

“Over the last five years, we’ve kind of just come to the conclusion that if they took another cut in the contract we were going to be gone. And they did, so we quit. Now they can’t get enough of acres to run the factory.”

In a letter to Agweek published Tuesday, the Montana-Dakota Beet Growers Association echoed Steinbeisser’s sentiments.

“The growers of our association have made every attempt to keep Sidney Sugars a viable operation, ever since it was purchased by American Crystal Sugar Company in 2002,” the group said. “Unfortunately, the sugarbeet growers of our area have never had a clear sight of how we fit into American Crystal Sugar’s future.

“For 20 years, the growers have had to negotiate a new contract with American Crystal Sugar Company every three years on average. During these negotiations, the sugar beet growers of this valley have been required to take substantial reductions in payments in order to keep American Crystal Sugar Company’s operation in our area profitable enough for them.

“During these years, the willingness of our area’s growers to adopt new technologies has risen yields to deliver more than enough production to keep the factory profitable. This adaptation of technology by our growers, and the sacrifices required of them in contracts, is the only reason we have been sustainable through these years of new ownership.”

While some farmers will switch crops, others will just retire, Steinbeisser said.

Losing 300 jobs can have a substantial impact on a town of 6,700.

“It’s a very sad day in our community,” Sidney Mayor Rick Norby said, according to KFYR-TV in Bismarck, North Dakota. “They’ve been a part of our community for almost 100 years. There’s going to be some changes within our community, of course. You’ve lost tax revenue, so it’s going to be devastating.”

Processing of the 2022 harvest is complete, the Western Ag Network reported. There’ll be cleanup work until April, with warehouse operations continuing through the summer.

Then it will be over.

And it will be a sad day in what some consider flyover country. Because it’s not just the urban areas affected by plant closures and layoffs. Rural areas have similar problems, too, including in small cities in places like Michigan where modest-sized manufacturers had acted as suppliers to Detroit’s once-mighty automobile industry.

And in Sidney, Montana, gone will be sugar beet operations once as dramatic as any big-city assembly line or steel mill.

You can see what it was like in this 2014 video:

“The businesses and people of our community have been the bedrock that has held up and continue to hold up many of our operations,” the Montana-Dakota Beet Growers Association said. “Our sugarbeet growers will be required to transition into a new way of life, and we ask for your continued support.”

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Mike Landry, PhD, is a retired business professor. He has been a journalist, broadcaster and church pastor. He writes from Northwest Arkansas on current events and business history.
Mike Landry, PhD, is a retired business professor. He has been a journalist, broadcaster and church pastor. He writes from Northwest Arkansas on current events and business history.