This is the size of America’s sweet tooth.
“What is that a picture of?” you’re probably asking. Sugar beets.
When I first moved to the big city of St. Paul, I discovered many of my college classmates had never heard of sugar beets. They thought all sugar comes from sugar cane. This was eye opening for me when just 200 miles from those lecture halls is the largest sugar beet-based, sugar-producing region in the country.
Sugar beets provide over 58% of sugar in the United States!
The picture above, in actuality, only captures about 1.3% of the sugar beets that nurse America’s sweet tooth. Industry-wide, that makes for a lot of sugar! And few understand the toil and sweat that made your fun-sized Halloween handouts so sweet.
My family has been growing sugar beets since our local sugar beet factory opened in 1974. I was about twelve years old when I was inaugurated into the sugar beet industry. My dad drove me and my brother out to a sugar beet field, handed each of us a weeding hoe, and left us to work for a few hours, clearing away the choking hazards from the young sugar beets still too fragile to be sprayed with herbicide.
Earlier this summer, I was back in the field, walking up and down the half-mile-long rows, pulling “bolters” from a heavily bolter-infested variety of sugar beets. A “bolter” is a beet that prematurely produces seed. Because sugar beet seeds are genetically modified and patented, growers can be fined or penalized if sugar beet bolters are discovered in the grower’s field. What’s more: bolters are likely the result of a poorly modified sugar beet seed variety; modified by the very same company that can threaten a patent lawsuit.
Two of us pulled well over 400 bolters from a single sugar beet field this summer. This is abnormal. Last year, there were only 12 bolters total in all of my father’s sugar beet fields. It took us four days to pull over 400 bolters.
Not all the regulation is bad; it may be inconvenient, but not bad. For example, the sugar beet cooperative: provides growers a list of approved seed varieties to grow that year; monitors the growers’ fields and pressures the grower to apply chemical if weeds or fungus or bugs are prominent; determines exactly when the growers may harvest, and closes down the factory or grower if the core temperature of the beets are too warm or frozen. It even determines how much money a grower will receive per ton of sugar beets for that year. All of these regulations relate to ensuring the preservation of the greatest amount of sucrose in the beet. And the greater amount of sucrose means a greater market price.
I have mixed feelings about the sugar beet cooperative. It seems a good number of local farmers have mixed feelings as well; stories circulate quickly about some who attempt to blatantly break some of the rules. But I’m writing from the nation’s heart of sugar beet production, and most here recognize the payout is greater than the inconvenience.
But the demand for sugar beet sugar is decreasing.
I attended a seminar this past year geared toward sugar growers. At the seminar, a speaker explained that one of the reasons the demand for sugar beets is decreasing is because people are consuming less sugar due to recent health campaigns, as well as substitutions with corn syrup and artificial sweeteners. The speaker mentioned research into other uses for sugar beets, such as for cattle feed and developing sugar beet-based ethanol.
You might be wondering: “why don’t farmers just grow what people want instead of continuing to grow a declining crop?”
Sugar beets grow so very well here; in farming, it is what this region is known for growing. If the cotton industry was booming, the farmers here would be out of luck, because it just would not grow here like it does in Texas, the greatest cotton-producing state in the country. If cotton clothing went out of style, Texas would certainly fund research into other uses for cotton.
I realize I’m looking at my future. If I really want to farm, the region and the land almost require I grow sugar beets. This is a daunting task. And the seemingly declining market is not encouraging.
Sugar beets are not easy to harvest. They’re not like wheat or soybeans where the combines glide over the surface of the earth. Sugar beet lifter discs are in the earth, and the semi-trucks must fight through muddy fields to be filled. The discs and chains on the lifter will get plugged. Everyone in the field must take up a crowbar or scraping tool and wrestle the machine free because it is always a race to deliver the beets during the window of time between when the crop is ready to harvest and freezing temperatures.
We do this around the clock for two weeks each year: 24/7. And we do all this for you, America. Ok, we do it for the money. But there wouldn’t be money in sugar beets if it weren’t for America’s sweet tooth, despite it’s declining size.
So next year, go ahead, be the house that gives out full-size candy bars.