Lake Lillian man is working on his 72nd straight sugar beet harvest
Earl Youngkratz started helping his dad on the farm more than 70 years ago. He has been farming ever since. Earl has worked every sugar beet harvest since 1944. Photo by Scott Thoma
As soon as Earl Youngkrantz starts to talk about farming, a warm smile crosses his face, his eyes light up, and his voice becomes clear and direct.
“I’ve always loved farming,” said Youngkrantz, a widower who lives two miles south and three miles west of Lake Lillian, or 20 miles southeast of Willmar.
Although Youngkrantz, 85, doesn’t farm full time anymore, he’s still active when it comes time to harvesting sugar beets in early October each year. In fact, this will be his 72nd straight beet harvest campaign.
“I’ve been planting and harvesting sugar beets, as well as other crops, since 1944,” he said, proudly. “I started when I was about 15 and helping my father on the farm.”
Youngkrantz and his late wife, Louise, purchased their own farm in 1950 and raised sugar beets and other crops.
Louise Youngkrantz, Earl’s wife of 55 years, passed away nine years ago due to complications with Alzheimer’s disease. Earl took care of her every day until her passing.
Youngkrantz’s four sons, Glenn, Gary, Dean and Alan all run the farm operations now, and all live within a few miles of their father’s place. The brothers share all the farmland, approximately 1,800 acres, while they rent another 1,200 acres of land.
“We have around 500 acres of sugar beets, and the rest is corn, sweet corn, beans and peas,” said Dean.
Farming has changed tremendously since Earl started farming in 1944. A tractor like this one was unfathomable for most of his farming career. Photo by Scott Thoma
When October rolls around, Earl hops aboard the Case IH tractor with a defoliator attached behind and helps get the sugar beets ready for harvest.
“I don’t work long hours like I used to,” he laughs. “I only work 8-10 hours a day for a few weeks in October. But I still really enjoy it.”
Earl has been doing this for so many years now that he can calculate how much defoliating is needed each day for the amount of harvesting his sons will do during a 12-hour shift from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m.
“We like to harvest as soon as we can after dad does the topping,” Dean said. “He might work from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and he just knows how much he needs to do each day.”
Earl is still in relatively good health. He has the usual aches and pains that are common with longtime farmers due to the long hours of hard labor for so many years. But he is still able to climb aboard the tractor without assistance.
When Dean was asked what he thought of his father still being able to help with the harvest, he wisecracked: “We put him up on the tractor just to keep him out of trouble.”
“Actually, we have been fortunate that he is still in good health and can help,” he added in a more serious tone. “He really likes to help out. He doesn’t realize how old he is.”
Earl’s job during harvest time is to defoliate (lopping the tops off) the sugar beets. The tops must be removed to prevent the sugar beets from decaying when they are stored (piled) for several months.
The defoliator has blades that neatly slice the tops off the sugar beets while small rubber beaters clean the sides of the sugar beets at the same time.
Slicing the tops off the sugar beets is called defoliating, something Earl has done every fall for many years. Photo by Scott Thoma
When that process is complete, a harvester comes along and pulls the sugar beets out of the ground. The beets then go through a cleaning bed that knocks off any excess dirt before they follow a conveyor into trucks that follow along. Then it’s off to one of the many piling stations around the area or to the sugar beet factory in Renville, which is 22 miles away.
“Years ago, they had to bring in migrant workers to cut the tops off the sugar beets by hand,” Earl recalled. “That took a long, long time. Then, when defoliators were first around, they were only able to defoliate one row at a time. It was a lot quicker, but nothing like what we have today.”
The defoliator Earl uses now is capable of working 12 rows at a time, which makes the process much less time consuming. There are even larger defoliators available.
Earl also assists with the tilling of the soil in the fall once the sugar beets have been harvested.
Although he doesn’t help plant anymore, Earl recalled a time when planting sugar beets was much more time consuming than it is now.
“We used to have to plant seeds much thicker years ago because they weren’t as hearty as they are now,” he said. “Then we had to hire workers to thin them out. Today, the seeds are so much better that we just put a seed down every 5 or 6 inches and there is no thinning.”
Harvesting still isn’t a guaranteed cakewalk, though, Earl said.
“Sometimes if we need to harvest and we’ve had a lot of rain, the semi trucks can’t get through the field for all the mud. So then we have one tractor pull the truck and another one push the truck.”
Earl has always been the type of person to help others out, including family and neighbors.
“He will take someone to the doctor or wherever they need to go,” said Dean. “One year, a neighbor couldn’t get his corn plowed in the fall because he didn’t have the equipment, so dad took it upon himself to go over and disc it for them. He’s always helping someone.”
Including his sons each fall.