There is little doubt that Americans have a sweet tooth. A wide variety of food and drink options contain some form of sugar. But here in the upper Midwest, we are blessed with the ability to meet the needs of those craving something sweet by growing and processing sugar beets. Let’s dive a little deeper and learn more about this fascinating commodity.
About beet sugar
Sugar beets have played a role in food systems dating all the way back to ancient Egypt. Today’s modern beets can be traced to Germany in the 18th Century. Here in the U.S., sugar beets first started popping up in California in the late 1870s. Since then, primary growing operations have migrated more towards northern states.
Sugar beets are a root crop with a growing season roughly five months long. Depending on the weather, beets can be planted as early as the latter part of March and harvested in autumn. A full-sized sugar beet can grow to be about a foot long, weighing on average between two and five pounds.
The real value of these beets comes from its sucrose – another name for sugar. The average beet will consist of about 18 percent in sugar content. The amount of sugar content heavily depends on the climate it’s grown in. Unlike cane sugar, which requires a tropical climate to grow, beets prefer a more tempered climate, including sunny days and cool nights in the fall.
What may surprise you is that upwards of 75 percent of the root of a sugar beet is water. The rest is made up of sucrose and pulp. Although most beets are grown for the sugar, other byproducts also are produced. Pulp taken from the beet is made into animal feed while molasses is turned into a host of different items ranging from vinegar to antibiotics.
Minnesota leads the way
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, sugar beets are grown in 12 different states. To see a map of counties that grow sugar beets in the U.S., click here. Among those states, Minnesota tops the chart. Last year, the North Star State produced 12.5 million tons of sugar beets. The next closest states are Idaho at just over 7 million tons and North Dakota with 6.2 million tons. Together, Minnesota and North Dakota combined for producing just over half the sugar beets in the U.S. last year.
With all this production between the neighboring states, it’s no surprise that this region also is home to several processing plants. If you take a drive through the Red River and Minnesota valley’s this fall, you will likely pass by fields containing piles of beets. These beets will be picked up and hauled to one of seven plants, depending on your location.
Minnesota is home to four beet plants with three additional operations just over the North Dakota border. Three separate cooperates own and operate these plants. The co-ops include Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative in Renville, Minn.; Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D.; and American Crystal Sugar Company with the remaining five. Overall, there are 23 beet processing plants in the U.S.
As you can tell, Minnesota and North Dakota share a common bond with this commodity. What they also share is a partnership between the Universities of Minnesota and North Dakota State. Together, along with the three previously mentioned sugar beet producers, research is generated to assist farmers raising sugar beets and the manufactures who process them.
In total, the research from this partnership has found direct economic benefits from this industry equaling $1.1 billion plus another $2 billion in secondary impacts. According to the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, the industry as a whole contributes $20 billion in positive economic activity each year in the U.S.
But like other commodities, fewer farmers are growing sugar beets. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the number of farms growing sugarcane and sugar beets declined from 2007 to 2012, but the average area harvested per farm increased. We will also note that there is no difference between the sugar produced from a beet when compared to sugarcane.
The process of manufacturing sugar beets deserves a post all to itself. If you are interested, and have some time to spare, be sure to check out the video below that walks you through each step of beet manufacturing.