July 23 • 06:28 PM

'Carrot's ugly cousin' has fascinating roots


November 05, 2008
They're kind of the carrot's ugly cousin, but at one time, sugar beets were prized enough to capture little Napoleon's attention. Thanks to him and a continental-sized war, there's demand to turn those big and bulky vegetables into sugar.

I find them, as most commodity crops, to be fascinating subjects.

Since we started growing them in 2006, it's been interesting to learn this sweet crop had quite a history in these parts—just last week Gertie Brooks mentioned the sugar beet fields and sugar factory in Capac again. Doug Hunter's mention of them in his review of the railroad bills of lading was of course attention-grabbing.

On several occasions this fall, I've found myself explaining what I know about sugar beets to my brother, friends and acquaintances.

Undoubtedly, harvest- ing the monsters is the most noteworthy thing on a grower's end. Planting is rather straightforward along with subsequent care, now that Round-Up Ready seed is available. Previously, a field was subjected to dozens of different spray applications.

Anyways, back to harvesting—the large-sized root vegetable (at least twice the size of garden varietes) requires equally huge equipment to get it out of the ground and to the processors.

Big tractors pull harvesters that can only be described as a series of wheels, rollers and conveyors that push them out of the ground, roll them clean and whirl them through a Ferris wheel up and over the side of dump cart or semi trailer.

Prior to digging the beets, their glossy green tops have been cut off by a beet topper, pulled behind a tractor just like a brush hog. The plant matter is returned to the ground and eventually decomposes to serve as a free soil amendment.

Travel north to Croswell and you'll pass dozens of other beet fields and beet-laden trucks. The Thumb's German heritage and fertile soil meant beets were destined to make a presence here. It was by the King of Prussia's subsidation that some of the first experiments were done on extracting sugar from the beet back in the 18th century and the first factory was opened in 1801 in what's now Poland. Eventually, the promise of sugar beets caught Napoleon's attention. He planted close to 70,000 acres and established schools for further study of the plant, mostly due to the fact that the British were imposing sugar cane blockades during the Napoleonic Wars. Consequently, cultivation of the sugar beet grew and in a 40 year time span (1840-1880) the percentage of the world's sugar derived from beets jumped from five to 50 percent.

A Michigan State Agricultural College professor was credited with being the father of the state's sugar beet industry after he imported thousands of pounds of seed and distributed them to local farmers. A group of Bay City-area businessmen banded together to build the state's first processing plant in Essexville in 1898. A lot has happened in the last 100 years, and today the Michigan Sugar Company is the state's lone processor. You'll see their products in the grocery store sold under the Pioneer and Big Chief labels. This is one homegrown food that's available in the grocery stores throughout the year.

As for the processing, the beets are washed, sliced and put in a diffuser where the sugar is drawn out. The resulting beet pulp is turned into livestock feed and the raw sugar juice is purified and enters an evaporator. A series of boiling, spinning and separating then follows from which molasses and the sugar crystals are formed. The sugar is dried, cooled and packaged.

Michigan currently ranks fourth in the nation in sugar beet production.

Homegrown goodness.

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