Ran-dee Bergeson scratches the fluffy soil with a plastic spoon, making a mark wherever pairs of tiny green leaves break the surface.
Every 7 inches, row after row in a 130-acre irrigated circle across a gravel road from Ber-ge-son's home, tiny sugar-beet plants peek from the soil where seed was sown about two weeks earlier.Occasionally, he skips a space, indicating a seed that failed to sprout because of recent wet, cold weather.
Across the Columbia Basin's 500,000 irrigated acres in east-central Washington, scores of other farmers are doing the same - looking for signs that this year's sugar beet crop is starting to take off.
In a way, the ritual reflects growers' hopes that sugar beets will once again become a dominant crop here. Bergeson, his brother Brett and their father, Wally, have joined about 40 other growers in forming the cooperative Columbia River Sugar Co. to help make it happen.
Once a major cash crop, sugar-beet production here died suddenly in 1979, when the Utah & Idaho Sugar Co. announced it was getting out of the beet business to focus on potatoes and frozen french fries, and closing refineries near Moses Lake and Toppenish.
At the time, more than 50,000 acres of sugar beets were being grown in the basin.
The announcement ended the white, turnip-shaped vegetable's 25-year role here. Growers like Wally Bergeson, who mostly produce wheat, alfalfa and potatoes, gave up on sugar beets as a rotation crop.
He still remembers the day the industry collapsed.
"It was quite a blow," Bergeson said. "You could always go to the bank with a beet contract and you knew what you would get."
Potatoes are the basin's major cash crop - 147,000 acres were harvested last year - but can't be grown on the same plot every year. They must be rotated with other crops or the soil gets worn out.
That's where sugar beets come in.
Because they soak up excess nitrogen and resist parasitic worms called nematodes, beets are an excellent rotation crop for potatoes, said Des O'Rourke, head of Washington State University's IMPACT office in Pullman.
"Certainly, for the crop mix of the basin, the sugar beet was an important part of the rotation," said O'Rourke, whose office deals with export crops. "It cleans up the soil and prevents the continuous buildup of nematodes."
For the past three years, Bergeson and his sons have grown sugar beets as part of a seven-crop rotation on their circular pivot-irrigated fields.
"Beets aren't a big moneymaker yet," he said of the effort to resurrect the crop. "But at least we've got our feet on the ground floor."
This year's crop, like those of the past two years, will be shipped to refineries in Idaho and California, increasing costs.
But soon, basin beets will have a shorter distance to travel.
Columbia River Sugar plans to build a $100 million refinery with Holly Sugar Corp. at the site of the old U&I plant near Moses Lake.
The partnership, called Pacific Northwest Sugar Co., acquired sugar silos, pulp tanks and 1,400 surrounding acres in March for the new refinery, which is expected to begin production in September 1998.
The refinery will employ about 300 people during the processing season that begins in the fall, and about 100 for maintenance after processing ends, said Marvin Price, Columbia River Sugar's general manager.
"The Columbia Basin is probably the best place in the United States, if not the world, to grow sugar beets," Price boasted. Both yields and sugar content of beets are higher here than in many other beet-growing regions, he said.
About 9,000 acres of beets are being grown in the Columbia Basin this year, down from last year's 10,500 acres and well below the planned refinery's 25,000-acre processing capacity, Price said.
Statewide, about 13,000 acres of sugar beets were planted in March and April. Growers in the Horse Heaven Hills south of Kennewick ship their beets to a refinery at Nyssa, Ore.
There have been numerous attempts over the years to resurrect the Columbia Basin sugar-beet crop, said O'Rourke, an agricultural economist.
Most have been "pie in the sky" plans, he said, but the latest venture "seems to be a lot more solid," though the operation will be small compared to most sugar processors.
"These guys have been willing to start small and get more growers back into the game. They have taken a more pragmatic approach," he said. "That makes you feel more optimistic about it."
Pacific Northwest Sugar's plan calls for eventual expansion of the refinery, which is considered medium-sized, Price noted.
The refinery is admittedly a gamble.
Sugar has traditionally been backed by federal price supports and protected by limits on foreign imports.
New federal farm legislation leaves domestic sugar protections in place for at least seven years, but O'Rourke frets about competition from other sweeteners, such as corn syrup, and the possibility that U.S. markets eventually will be opened to lower-cost cane sugar from Cuba, the Philippines and Central and South America.
"I'm always worried about pursuing an artificial market like the sugar market," he said. "Down the road, where will our sugar be coming from?"
But Price is confident domestic sugar prices will remain relatively stable in the future. New legislation removed restrictions contained in the previous farm bill, making it easier for growers to enter the market, he said.
"It's taken a long time," he said, "but we're finally going to get it done."