HUDSON, CO (AP)--About 10 years ago, a group of farmers was standing around a transfer station, waiting for their sugar beets to be weighed when they decided to call themselves "The Unholy 13."

The dubious nickname referred to the state of the region's sugar beet industry, which had been battling low prices. That's on top of the normal uncertainty of weather and contract negotiations with the company that turns the beet, the first crop in the ground and often the last out each year, into sugar.

The decade-long struggle took its toll, with the Unholy 13 dwindling to about six farmers, with some retiring and others opting to grow other crops.

Earlier this year, London-based Tate & Lyle, which owns Western Sugar Co., decided that profits were too low and put the company and its six regional plants up for sale, jeopardizing the growers' ability to process the crop they had invested so much time and equipment into growing.

Instead of giving up, farmers in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana decided the only hope for them, and their neighbors who work in the plants, was to band together and buy the company. They have formed a cooperative, hoping to close on a $78 million deal to buy Western Sugar, which has operated under that name and Great Western Sugar for nearly 100 years.

Although March 30 was the deadline, there was some wiggle room since no other buyer has surfaced.

"The best time to buy into something is when it looks the bleakest," said Thomas Bauer, a third-generation beet farmer in Bayard, Neb., who had nearly given up on growing beets. "If you're going to advance in life, there is risk involved."

Joe Amen, an original member of the Unholy 13 who raises sugar beets, barley, wheat and sunflowers in this farming community about 40 miles northeast of Denver, believes the farmers will gain some stability.

In the early 1900s, Great Western was a company to be reckoned with in the region, with a seven-story brick headquarters in downtown Denver complete with marble stairs and at least one safe on every floor.

The 1906 Sugar Building was abandoned by 1982 but reopened last year after being renovated by the Thomas and Perkins advertising agency. At least once a month someone stops by to recall how they used to come with their grandfather to bring beets to the building for processing, agency spokeswoman Trisha Smith said.

They remember getting paid in cash for the crop from one of the vaults, some of which are two stories high. Some remember being told by their grandmothers to make sure the money wasn't spent in one of the neighborhood bars, Smith said.

Most Rocky Mountain beet farmers had no other choice than to do business with Great Western, which became Western Sugar when Tate & Lyle bought it in 1985 after a bankruptcy.

Beets are a relatively expensive crop to grow, requiring farm workers to weed the fields by hand. But, historically, they have been profitable for farmers because the government's sugar policy has limited imports over the years and sugar is a high value product.

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