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Sugar beet
276 Beta vulgaris L.jpg
Sugar beet, illustration of root, leaf, and flowering patterns
SpeciesBeta vulgaris
Subspecies<i>Beta vulgaris</i> subsp. <i>vulgaris</i>
Cultivar groupAltissima Group
OriginSilesia, mid-18th century

A sugar beet is a plant whose root contains a high concentration of sucrose and which is grown commercially for sugar production. In plant breeding it is known as the Altissima cultivar group of the common beet (Beta vulgaris).[1] Together with other beet cultivars, such as beetroot and chard, it belongs to the subspecies Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris. Its closest wild relative is the sea beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima).[2]

In 2013, Russia, France, the United States, Germany, and Turkey were the world's five largest sugar beet producers.[3] In 2010–2011, North America and Europe did not produce enough sugar from sugar beets to meet overall demand for sugar and were all net importers of sugar.[4] The US harvested 1,004,600 acres (406,547 ha) of sugar beets in 2008.[5] In 2009, sugar beets accounted for 20% of the world's sugar production.[6]

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  • ✪ Special Episode: Sugar Beet Harvest - America's Heartland


  America's Heartland is made possible by.... American agriculture plays an essential role in providing food, feed, fuel and fiber to people around the world.   Monsanto is committed to helping farmers increase crop yields and conserve natural resources.   Monsanto is proud to support this program bringing you the stories of people in America's heartland whose hard work makes a difference in all of our lives. With sustainable production, agricultural innovation and research, these men and women are working to make life better.   Monsanto would like to recognize them for all they do for all of us. ....and by the  American   Farm Bureau Federation - the voice of agriculture. ♪♪ I'm Sarah Gardner. And you thought sugar just came from sugar cane! Find out how they are turning sugar beets into the sweet stuff. I'm Jason Shoultz. It's harvest time in the  Red River Valley . And there's no time to slow down when you have to get the beets out of the ground. ♪♪ ♪♪   ♪ You can see it in the eyes   of every woman and man ♪   ♪ in America's Heartland   living close to the land. ♪   ♪ There's a love   for the country ♪   ♪ and a pride in the brand ♪   ♪ in America's Heartland   living close, ♪   ♪ close to the land. ♪ There are no city street lights to guide Neil Rockstad's pickup truck at this hour. It's just him, his dog and the eerie quiet of rural Minnesota at 1 am. While his wife and family are soundly asleep, Neil is getting ready for another long day. There is oil to be checked in the engine and air pressure to check in the tires. It's sugar beet harvest season in an area called the  Red River Valley. And that means very little rest for farmers   and drivers who haul tons of beets. The Red River Valley is one of a handful of sugar beet growing areas in the U.S. It's a large swath of land that runs from western Minnesota to eastern North Dakota. In the field and at sugar processing factories across the area, it means moving  non-stop until the beets are out of the ground and being turned into sweet sugar. ♪♪ You might not think of sugar coming from these oversized white beets, but that's exactly what happens once they get to the factory. It's a chemical process that is actually similar to getting sugar from sugar cane. Hundreds of workers will be required to help truck and pile the beets and turn them into sugar. And more are needed to make sure things run as smoothly as possible. If it all doesn't work out as planned, instead of sugar on the shelves, these farmers could lose millions of dollars! It all requires the perfect storm of weather, work and willpower. And it all begins back in the field with farmers like Neil Rockstad. Outside of the lights of your, you know your rig here, it's just pitch black. There's just nothing out there. ....Pitch black except for the stars and if the moon should happen to come up. Although, I think the moon is coming up after the sun today. And how are you staying.... do you stay awake out here at this hour? Uhm.... ....drink lots of coffee, listen to the radio, and take a few.... ....a few naps when nobody's looking. Neil carefully follows the rows of sugar beets while driving his tractor. The leafy tops of the sugar beet plants are mowed off before Neil comes along with his digger. The top of the beet is sliced off so it's ready to be easily popped out of the ground. The digger that he's pulling must be lined up just right to pull the beets out of the ground. Then you could say plucking the beets out of the ground. They lift them onto the grab rolls. The purpose of the grab rolls is to clean the mud, separate the mud, from the beets or the dirt from the beets and then to convey the beets to the back of the.... ....of the harvester. From there, they fall into the Ferris wheel, and they make a big trip up to the top of the Ferris wheel, get dropped down to an elevator chain, and conveyed out to the truck. Neil's is a third generation sugar beet farmer, following in the footsteps of his grandfather and uncle. Neil grows beets for  American Crystal Sugar . The company is actually a cooperative of 28-hundred growers who raise more than 400-thousand acres of sugar beets. That's more than 10 million tons! So the sun's not even gonna be up for a few hours and yet you've been out here already pulling these things outta the ground. Right, right, we harvest sugar beets 24 hours a day. And you gotta get 'em outta the ground right that's the deal? Yep, yep we keep rolling as long as the weather cooperates with us.   Let's just do it. And this is a beet? Yep! This is a sugar beet, right? This is a sugar beet, an average size sugar beet that you'd find in any grower's field at harvest time. Some are quite a bit larger. Some are smaller, but.... And it's pretty heavy. I mean, there's a lotta mass to this thing. Yeah, sure there is, yep! And it's loaded with sugar essentially. You get the sugar outta this thing? Right, yep! In the chemical process? Yep once it's uh.... ....once it goes into the factory, it goes in like this and comes out the other end as pure granulated sugar just like you have on your kitchen table. Fortunately, we've had a few days of uh.... ....of drier weather. And the field conditions are pretty nice right where I'm at. Some people aren't so fortunate right now. But uh, when it's.... ....when it's muddy, our harvester is in the dirt. It's a root crop. And it's a....'s really a pain to harvest the beets. We get it done, but it's a....'s a nuisance. And it's kind of a mess. And while nice warm weather would seem ideal for any harvest, for sugar beets? It actually can create problems. While it's cool in these overnight hours, a string of warm sunny days has actually warmed up the internal temperature of the beets. We'll explain why that is a problem in a minute. But for farmers like Neil? It means stopping down the harvest because there are hundreds of thousands of beets being harvested in a small time-frame. To have an orderly process, farmers like Neil are assigned harvesting shifts. Neil's started at 2 am and will continue until PM unless he gets a  weather shutdown order from the sugar cooperative. If they're gonna shut down at a certain hour, we all get a text message on our telephone, and we all know at exactly the same time. And for the past few days, Neil and the other farmers here have been stopping down at noon and not starting back up until it cools off at midnight. It can be frustrating. You know, here you might have a beautiful day if the sun is shining and maybe there's rain in the forecast two days from now. But you have to shut down because the beet temperature is too warm. It's not just farmers burning the midnight oil. I visited the  American Crystal   Sugar factory in Hillsboro, Minnesota where the beets are coming in by the truckload. ♪♪ And the bags of sugar are coming out. Randy Axtman is the plant manager. This facility is one of six   American Crystal Sugar factories. Farmers either bring their beets to piling sites around the area or the closest factory. You have likely heard of sugar from sugar cane. And the process to make sugar from beets isn't much different than making it from cane. The first step in the processing facility is washing of the beets. ♪♪ The beets are sliced into French-fry sized pieces. And then they get soaked in hot water to get the sugar inside. That sugar, or sucrose, gets purified, evaporated, filtered, and then spun around in a centrifuge. And finally, you've got sugar. There is an average time from when the beets enter the entry point in the process. It's approximately 16-20 hours before you see crystallized sugar product. Chemically, there is very little difference between cane and beet sugar, although some bakers do prefer the cane variety. Back on the farm, they've been at it for several hours, and the sun still hasn't come up. By now, his coffee is as cold as the air outside. But Adam Mund has to stay sharp. He's got to keep his open box truck lined up just right so the waterfall of thousands of beets coming off the conveyor lands in the truck, not on the ground. You can't stray too far from this tractor, can you? No, if I end up getting too far away or we're going to end up having beets all over the field. And we don't really want that. They're kinda valuable. Neil won't like that one bit? No! It's pretty amazing! I mean, with all the equipment it takes and the sheer number of people that  American Crystal alone employs? It's pretty staggering. Like we were talking about it yesterday with all the temporary work, people literally schedule their vacations around beet harvest so they can come and drive or work the piler or work the roto beater, whatever they gotta do. So I definitely enjoy it! The shift's kinda rough: two a.m. to two p.m. That is not a good shift. No, but one of my coworkers kinda made a good point. On the first day? That by the time, you're starting to get pretty run down and tired, the sun is coming up. So you're looking forward to that sun coming up to keep you awake. And so then from there on out, it's smooth sailing. Is this your tired time right now? Yeah, kinda in the gap between the  when I run outta coffee and between   when the sun comes up. Right now, we're headed to the beet piler which is maybe three or four miles away. How many trips a day will you make there, to the beet piler? Usually averages out to be about one an hour on a good day. One of the first days we started? All the, you know, the fields are good. The piler wasn't backed up. We actually got 18 loads in a 12 hour shift. But that's fairly rare. That's a lotta trips back and forth. Yeah. I got laid off this summer doing concrete when the economy kinda got my boss and got laid off and was looking for work. Come fall, and actually put up a note in the hardware store, and Neil saw it and gave me a call and was willing to work with me even though I didn't have any experience and kinda showed me the ropes. And here I am. That turned out to be pretty good, a pretty good deal, that he had some faith in ya, I guess. Yeah, worked out really well. He was a pretty good guy, willing to teach you. If you've got a question, he'll answer it for ya. So that's always nice. So like a lot of people, when the economy went south, you find yourself outta work, essentially. Yeah pretty much, especially with, you know, construction. The Fargo, Morehead metro area? They say it hasn't been, you know, hit by the economy as bad as some areas of the nation. But you know, construction still slows down. And that hurts a lotta guys especially the smaller guys. So one good thing, you know? It's like I was saying before, the beet harvest employs so many people that it doesn't matter what the economy's doing. The crops gotta come in. ♪♪ As the sun rises, the rest of the folks here start showing signs of life. Neil Rockstad's wife Elizabeth is on her way to her job teaching at the local high school. If any of those sugar beet truck drivers want another quick cup of coffee, Roberta Hettervig's   Halstad Café is open for business. This is the West Ada sugar beet piling site. Farmers bring their beets here around the clock! Hey Sarah, what's going on? Hey Jason, how are you? You been out at the farm? I've got about 15 tons of beets ready to dump on this pile. Just a small dent! Just a very small dent, you know? We were at the processing plant. It occurred to me while we were there watching the trucks and the big equipment go every which way, that this is really a well-orchestrated dance: getting the crops from the field to the piling site and then onto the processing plant. And I'm amazed you know how much weather plays a critical factor. They've got to get these beets on this pile before Mother Nature says  shut it down . Speaking of which, you better get going. You are holding up the process! I'll check in with you later! Let's get these on the pile. Ready to go? Let's go! See you, Sarah. ♪♪ There are millions of beets stacked four stories high. It's truly a mountain of beets. So Joe, these are massive piles of beets! How many tons of beets are in these piles? In this pile here? We probably have 70-thousand ton approximately. For the total site that we're at today? 140-thousand ton! It's not one of our largest stations, but a good chunk of beets. This site can handle about 40 trucks an hour   at all hours . Our goal is to turn these guys around in 15 minutes. So they weigh in and weigh out, dump their load, and weigh out in about 15 minutes. The beets will be piled at sites like this across the area through the upcoming winter months. The cool temperatures keep the beets from rotting. But if the beets go into the pile too warm or too cold, it could slowly cause them to decay. And with the beet piles here worth about 10 million dollars each, that's not something anybody wants. It could mean a giant section of the beets is unusable for sugar. So checking the beet temperature is critical. So we have a window basically of about 28 degrees with where the roots will start to freeze up to about 65 degrees. We have to operate within that window. Anything outside that window? We'll have to shut down. And today, the temperature is getting too close to that 65 degree danger-zone. So another heat shutdown could be in the works. And with warm weather in the forecast for the next few days? It could be an extended. That wouldn't be good news for farmers itching to get their crop out of the ground. The longer they wait, the more chance that rain, cold or even snow causes problems. During the day, it's supposed to be warm today. We'll actually probe the beets with the thermometer and watch the temps as they come in. When we see them start to climb, we can shut down harvest then. The shutdown information is so important that the local radio station has a daily sugar beet report. And today, the call has to made.   We have the latest from   American Crystal Sugar Company   of Hillsborough.   Industry wide,   the shut down will be   at noon today because of heat. And shutting down the pile again isn't just bad news for farmers. About 13-thousand people are needed to help bring in the harvest. Drivers and workers at the piling sites all feel the impact, workers like Gerald Maxwell! He and his brother are retired, but drive up from Florida in their RV's each year to help out with the beet harvest. They got a campground over here in Hillsborough, very nice and full of hookups. They pay the campground for us. So we don't have to be responsible for that. And we get my brother here and a couple other friends in the camper club. They're together. So we kind of, if we're not working, we're kind of enjoying each other, going out to supper, and having a barbeque or whatever. You know, when we're not working? Like today, we'll get off early today. We'll probably have a steak fry when we get home tonight. Am I invited? Yeah! And Gerald isn't the only one on a working vacation. The harvest requires such a large workforce that hundreds of temporary workers will come from across the country to help out. So you're gonna come back for more next year? Oh, I'm sure we will. My brother will, and I will come back, yeah. Then the other families that are up here with us will come back. They all seem to-- they kind of say sometimes, "Oh, we're not gonna do that again." Next fall, we're up here. Do your family members try to tell you, "Hey, look. You're supposed to be taking it easy. Why are you working?" My sons and my daughter are wondering what I'm doin' up here. Exactly. But it's- it's something that breaks up our- our year, you know. It's good for us to do something. We don't want to be sittin' around all the time. ♪♪ ♪♪ Back at the Halstad Café, the lunch rush is on. Such as it is in this town of just over 500. It's hard for Roberta Hettervig to predict just how many customers she'll get during sugar beet season. If the crews are going strong in the fields, they're not stopping for a home cooked lunch. But if the weather has put a stop to harvesting? She'll expect a crowd. There's a lot more orders where people have a group of workers to feed out in the field. Roberta's connection to sugar beet farmers is more than just serving them the daily special. She grew up cooking for the workers on her family's sugar beet farm. I was mom's helper. So I was in the house. And if there was eight people or 20 people to feed? We fed them. And sometimes, it was three meals a day. It's a higher energy level. Everybody's kind of geared up, and you hope everything goes safely. And we can get the crop up without there being any major glitches. Now Roberta's mom helps her in the kitchen at her restaurant! Back in Ada, Roberta's husband Bob is hard at work at the local co-op. There are tires to change. And this time of year, he's on call 24 hours a day. Lot of times, it's real busy. Sometimes it's fairly quiet. When it's been nice now? The guys are shut down with the harvest during the day. And they got time to look at stuff and check it, get it in a little better shape. Changing a tire on a summer afternoon may not seem like a big deal by itself. But across this region, the economic impact of this harvest adds up quickly. We're talking upwards of 3 billion dollars! You're a busy guy this time of year? Yeah, I'm on call 24/7. Local farm equipment dealer Roger Hanson will be working on harvesting equipment day and night over the next four weeks. Last year Roger put 9-thousand miles on his truck driving to farm fields for repairs! That kind of support is critical for farmers like David Arends. He's getting his harvester repaired today. How important is it for you to have everything running, you know, tip-top this time of year during the sugar beet harvest? Very important! what would it do to you? Because if you lose a piece of equipment, Well this thing, without this, I don't do anything. ♪♪   For D,   a color   made by mixing 3 colors.... The afternoon bell is about to ring at the high school in the nearby town of Ulen. And Elizabeth Rockstad, known as Mrs. Rockstad around here, is winding down her day.   Okay, that's it.   You guys can head out. It's the end of the day. Long day in the classroom, right? Yeah! In the meantime, your husband's been at it all day on the sugar beet field. You guys are busy. Well, it's that part of the farming life, I guess. It's go, go, go all the time. But certain times of the year, it's busier than others. And this is the busy time! This is as busy as it gets, usually. I imagine a lot of the kids in your class, same thing, right? Their parents are probably doing same thing. Yeah, well this whole area is big sugar area, big agricultural area. So yeah, they're either combining soybeans right now or lifting beets. And some are doing both, you know? Back on the Rockstad's farm at Ada, Neil's father is almost done harvesting a swath of soybeans. That heat shutdown gives Neil an opportunity to check in on other farm business. From the small-towns to the rural countryside, October is sugar beet season in the  Red River Valley . And this year, families like the Rockstad's look forward to a record harvest. Neil knows he doesn't have long to linger over lemonade on this warm afternoon. In less than 12 hours, he'll be back in the tractor guided by the moonlight harvesting sweet beets! ♪♪ Well, that will do it for today here at the Rockstad farm and all of the sugar beet farms across the  Red River Valley . Thanks for joining us on this edition of  America's Heartland . And that's going to do it for this time from Ada, Minnesota, the small town that never sleeps   at least during the beet harvest. But don't forget! We have much more to share with you online as well. Just log onto And stay in touch with us 24/7 through many of your favorite sites as well. We'll see you next time. To order a copy of this broadcast, visit us online or call 1-888-814-3923 The cost is $14.95 plus shipping.   ♪ You can see it in the eyes   of every woman and man ♪   ♪ in America's Heartland   living close to the land. ♪   ♪ There's a love   for the country ♪   ♪ and a pride in the brand ♪   ♪ in America's Heartland   living close, ♪   ♪ close to the land. ♪   America's Heartland is made possible by.... Who grows our economy? Who ships nearly 100 billion dollars of crops and products to many nations? Who provides more than 24 million jobs here at home? Who? America's farm families brought to you on behalf of America's farmers by  Monsanto . ....and by the  American   Farm Bureau Federation - the voice of agriculture. ♪♪



The sugar beet has a conical, white, fleshy root (a taproot) with a flat crown. The plant consists of the root and a rosette of leaves. Sugar is formed by photosynthesis in the leaves and is then stored in the root.

The root of the beet contains 75% water, about 20% sugar, and 5% pulp.[7] The exact sugar content can vary between 12% and 21% sugar, depending on the cultivar and growing conditions. Sugar is the primary value of sugar beet as a cash crop. The pulp, insoluble in water and mainly composed of cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin, and pectin, is used in animal feed. The byproducts of the sugar beet crop, such as pulp and molasses, add another 10% to the value of the harvest.[6]

Sugar beets grow exclusively in the temperate zone, in contrast to sugarcane, which grows exclusively in the tropical and subtropical zones. The average weight of sugar beet ranges between 0.5 and 1 kg (1.1 and 2.2 lb). Sugar beet foliage has a rich, brilliant green color and grows to a height of about 35 cm (14 in). The leaves are numerous and broad and grow in a tuft from the crown of the beet, which is usually level with or just above the ground surface.[8]


Modern sugar beets date back to mid-18th century Silesia where the king of Prussia subsidised experiments aimed at processes for sugar extraction.[9][10] In 1747, Andreas Marggraf isolated sugar from beetroots and found them at concentrations of 1.3–1.6%.[11] He also demonstrated that sugar could be extracted from beets that was identical with sugar produced from sugarcane.[10] His student, Franz Karl Achard, evaluated 23 varieties of mangelwurzel for sugar content and selected a local strain from Halberstadt in modern-day Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. Moritz Baron von Koppy and his son further selected from this strain for white, conical tubers.[11] The selection was named weiße schlesische Zuckerrübe, meaning white Silesian sugar beet, and boasted about a 6% sugar content.[9][11] This selection is the progenitor of all modern sugar beets.[11]

A royal decree led to the first factory devoted to sugar extraction from beetroots being opened in Kunern, Silesia (now Konary, Poland) in 1801. The Silesian sugar beet was soon introduced to France, where Napoleon opened schools specifically for studying the plant. He also ordered that 28,000 hectares (69,000 acres) be devoted to growing the new sugar beet.[9] This was in response to British blockades of cane sugar during the Napoleonic Wars, which ultimately stimulated the rapid growth of a European sugar beet industry.[9][10] By 1840, about 5% of the world's sugar was derived from sugar beets, and by 1880, this number had risen more than tenfold to over 50%.[9] The sugar beet was introduced to North America after 1830, with the first commercial production starting in 1879 at a farm in Alvarado, California.[10][11] The sugar beet was also introduced to Chile by German settlers around 1850.[11]

A geneticist evaluates sugar beet plants, resistant to the fungal disease Rhizoctonia root rot, for pollen fertility
A geneticist evaluates sugar beet plants, resistant to the fungal disease Rhizoctonia root rot, for pollen fertility


"The beet-root, when being boiled, yields a juice similar to syrup of sugar, which is beautiful to look at on account of its vermilion color"[12] (1575). [13] This was written by 16th-century scientist, Olivier de Serres, who discovered a process for preparing sugar syrup from the common red beet. However, because crystallized cane sugar was already available and provided a better taste, this process never caught on. This story characterizes the history of the sugar beet. The competition between beet sugar and sugarcane for control of the sugar market plays out from the first extraction of a sugar syrup from a garden beet into the modern day.

The use of sugar beets for the extraction of crystallized sugar dates to 1747, when Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, professor of physics in the Academy of Science of Berlin, discovered the existence of a sugar in vegetables similar in its properties to that obtained from sugarcane. He found the best of these vegetable sources for the extraction of sugar was the white beet.[14] Despite Marggraf’s success in isolating pure sugar from beets, their commercial manufacture for sugar did not take off until the early 19th century. Marggraf's student and successor Franz Karl Achard began selectively breeding sugar beet from the 'White Silesian' fodder beet in 1784. By the beginning of the 19th century, his beet was about 5–6% sucrose by (dry) weight, compared to around 20% in modern varieties. Under the patronage of Frederick William III of Prussia, he opened the world's first beet sugar factory in 1801, at Cunern (Polish: Konary) in Silesia.[8]


French sugar beet mill in operation in the 1840s
French sugar beet mill in operation in the 1840s

The work of Achard soon attracted the attention of Napoleon Bonaparte, who appointed a commission of scientists to go to Silesia to investigate Achard's factory. Upon their return, two small factories were constructed near Paris. Although these factories were not altogether a success, the results attained greatly interested Napoleon. Thus, when two events, the blockade of Europe by the British Navy and the Haitian Revolution, made the importation of cane sugar untenable, Napoleon seized the opportunity offered by beet sugar to address the shortage. In 1811, Napoleon issued a decree appropriating one million francs for the establishment of sugar schools, and compelling the farmers to plant a large acreage to sugar beets the following year. He also prohibited the further importation of sugar from the Caribbean effective in 1813.[15]

The number of mills increased considerably during the 1820s and 1830s, reaching a peak of 543 in 1837. The number was down to 382 in 1842, producing about 22.5 million kg of sugar during that year.[16]

Western Europe

As a result of the French advances in sugar beet production and processing made during the Napoleonic Wars, the beet sugar industry in Europe developed rapidly. A new tax levied in Germany in 1810 prompted the experimentation to increase the sugar content of the beet. This was because the tax assessed the value of the sugar beet crop based on the unprocessed weight of the sugar beet rather than the refined sugar produced from them.[15][17] By 1812, Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Quéruel, working for the industrialist Benjamin Delessert, devised a process of sugar extraction suitable for industrial application. By 1837, France had become the largest sugar beet producer in the world, a position it continued to hold in the world even into 2010. By 1837, 542 factories in France were producing 35,000 tonnes of sugar. However, by 1880, Germany became the largest producer of sugar from sugar beet in the world, since the German factories processed most of the sugar beets grown in eastern France.[8]

By the 1850s, sugar beet production had reached Russia and Ukraine. This was made possible by the protection of the sugar beet industry by bounties, or subsidies, paid to beet sugar producers upon the export of their sugar by their respective governments.[15][18] The protection provided to the sugar beet industry by these bounties caused drastic damage to the cane sugar industry and their grip on the British sugar market. The result was a reduction in the production of cane sugar, molasses and rum until 1915.[15][19] During World War I, the widespread conflict destroyed large tracts of land that had served as sugar beet producers and repurposed much of the remaining sugar beet land for grain production. This resulted in a shortage that revived the shrinking cane sugar industry.[15]

United States

The first attempts at sugar beet cultivation were pursued by abolitionists in New England. The "Beet Sugar Society of Philadelphia" was founded in 1836 and promoted home-produced beet sugar as an alternative to the slave-produced cane sugar from the West Indies or sugar imported from Asia (called "free sugar" because it was grown without using slavery), but which tasted "awful".[20] However, this movement failed, perhaps most due to the unpopularity of abolitionists at the time, at least until the Civil War, when these associations would become irrelevant and only the economic feasibility of the industry remained.[20]

In the 1850s, an attempt was made in Utah by the LDS Church-owned Deseret Manufacturing Company to grow and process sugar beets, that failed for several reasons. First, the beet seeds they imported from France were not able to produce much sugar in the heavily salinized soil of Utah. Second, the cost of importing the beet seed from France ate up any possibility for profit. Finally, none of the people running the factory knew how to properly use the chemicals to separate the sugar from the beet pulp.[21]

The first successful sugar beet factory was built by E. H. Dyer at Alvarado, California (now Union City), in 1870, but did not see any profit until 1879. The factory survived on subsidies it gained, since the abolitionist stigma that had held back the development of a sugar beet industry had been erased with the Civil War.[20][21][22] After this first success in Alvarado, the sugar beet industry expanded rapidly. In 1889, Arthur Stayner and others were able to convince LDS Church leaders to back a second attempt, leading to the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company.[23][24] By 1914, the sugar beet industry in the United States matched the production of its European counterparts. The largest producers of beet sugar in the United States would remain California, Utah, and Nebraska until the outbreak of World War II.[22][25] Many sugar beet farmers in California were Japanese Americans; when they were interned during World War II, California's beet sugar production also shifted inland to states such as Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and Utah. In many of the regions where new sugar beet farms were started during the war, farmers were unfamiliar with beet sugar cultivation, so they hired Japanese workers from internment camps who were familiar with sugar beet production to work on the farms.[26]

Sugar beets are grown in 11 states and represent 55% of the US sugar production[27] as compared to sugar cane which is grown in 4 states[28] and accounts for 45% of US sugar production.

United Kingdom

Sugar beets were not grown on a large scale in the United Kingdom until the mid-1920s, when 17 processing factories were built, following war-time shortages of imported cane sugar. Before World War I, with its far-flung empire, the United Kingdom simply imported the sugar from the cheapest market. However, World War I had created a shortage in sugar, prompting the development of a domestic market. The first sugar beet processing factory was built at Lavenham in Suffolk in 1860, but failed after a few years without the government support its counterparts on the continent received. The Dutch built the first successful factory at Cantley in Norfolk in 1912, and it was moderately successful since, because of its Dutch backing, it received Dutch bounties.[15]

Sugar beet seed from France was listed in the annual catalogues of Gartons Agricultural Plant Breeders from that firm's inception in 1898 until the first of their own varieties was introduced in 1909. In 1915, the British Sugar Beet Society was formed to create an example of a domestic sugar beet industry for the purpose of obtaining government financing. Twelve years later, in 1927, they succeeded. The sugar beet industry in the United Kingdom was finally subsidized providing stability to the domestic industry that had experienced volatile shifts in profits and losses in the years since 1915.[15]


References to the sugar manufacturing from beets in Russia are dating back to 1802. Jacob Esipov has built a first Russian commercial factory producing sugar from beets in the Tula province.[29][30]

During the Soviet period, some particularly impressive advancements were made in seed development, of which the most useful was the development of a frost-resistant sugar beet, further expanding the growing range of the sugar beet.[31]


A sugar beet farm in Switzerland
A sugar beet farm in Switzerland
Worldwide sugar beet production
Worldwide sugar beet production

The sugar beet, like sugarcane, needs a peculiar soil and a unique climate for its successful cultivation. The most important requirement is the soil must contain a large supply of plant food, be rich in humus, and have the property of retaining a great deal of moisture. A certain amount of alkali is not necessarily detrimental, as sugar beets are not especially susceptible to injury by some alkali. The ground should be fairly level and well-drained, especially where irrigation is practiced.[8]

While the physical character is of secondary importance, as generous crops are grown in sandy soil as well as in heavy loams, still the ideal soil is a sandy loam, i.e., a mixture of organic matter, clay and sand. A subsoil of gravel, or the presence of hard-pan, is not desirable, as cultivation to a depth of from 12 to 15 inches (30.5 to 38.1 cm) is necessary to produce the best results.

Climatic conditions, temperature, sunshine, rainfall and winds have an important bearing upon the success of sugar beet agriculture. A temperature ranging from 15 to 21 °C (59.0 to 69.8 °F) during the growing months is most favorable. In the absence of adequate irrigation, 460 mm (18.1 inches) of rainfall are necessary to raise an average crop. High winds are harmful, as they generally crust the land and prevent the young beets from coming through the ground. The best results are obtained along the coast of southern California, where warm, sunny days succeeded by cool, foggy nights seem to meet sugar beet's favored growth conditions. Sunshine of long duration but not of great intensity is the most important factor in the successful cultivation of sugar beets. Near the equator, the shorter days and the greater heat of the sun sharply reduce the sugar content in the beet.[8]

In high elevation regions such as those of Colorado and Utah, where the temperature is high during the daytime, but where the nights are cool, the quality of the sugar beet is excellent. In Michigan, the long summer days from the relatively high latitude (the Lower Peninsula, where production is concentrated, lies between the 41st and 46th parallels North) and the influence of the Great Lakes result in satisfactory climatic conditions for sugar beet culture. Sebewaing, Michigan lies in the Thumb region of Michigan; both the region and state are major sugar beet producers. Sebewaing is home to one of three Michigan Sugar Company factories. The town sponsors an annual Michigan Sugar Festival.[32][unreliable source?]

To cultivate beets successfully, the land must be properly prepared. Deep ploughing is the first principle of beet culture. It allows the roots to penetrate the subsoil without much obstruction, thereby preventing the beet from growing out of the ground, besides enabling it to extract considerable nourishment and moisture from the lower soil. If the latter is too hard, the roots will not penetrate it readily and, as a result, the plant will be pushed up and out of the earth during the process of growth. A hard subsoil is impervious to water and prevents proper drainage. It should not be too loose, however, as this allows the water to pass through more freely than is desirable. Ideally, the soil should be deep, fairly fine and easily penetrable by the roots. It should also be capable of retaining moisture and at the same time admit of a free circulation of air and good drainage. Sugar beet crops exhaust the soil rapidly. Crop rotation is recommended and necessary. Normally, beets are grown in the same ground every third year, peas, beans or grain being raised the other two years.[8]

A sugar beet harvest in progress, Germany
A sugar beet harvest in progress, Germany

In most temperate climates, beets are planted in the spring and harvested in the autumn. At the northern end of its range, growing seasons as short as 100 days can produce commercially viable sugar beet crops. In warmer climates, such as in California's Imperial Valley, sugar beets are a winter crop, planted in the autumn and harvested in the spring. In recent years, Syngenta has developed the so-called tropical sugar beet. It allows the plant to grow in tropical and subtropical regions. Beets are planted from a small seed; 1 kg (2.2 lb) of beet seed comprises 100,000 seeds and will plant over one hectare (2.5 acres) of ground (one pound or 0.454 kilograms will plant about one acre or 0.40 hectares.

Until the latter half of the 20th century, sugar beet production was highly labor-intensive, as weed control was managed by densely planting the crop, which then had to be manually thinned two or three times with a hoe during the growing season. Harvesting also required many workers. Although the roots could be lifted by a plough-like device which could be pulled by a horse team, the rest of the preparation was by hand. One laborer grabbed the beets by their leaves, knocked them together to shake free loose soil, and then laid them in a row, root to one side, greens to the other. A second worker equipped with a beet hook (a short-handled tool between a billhook and a sickle) followed behind, and would lift the beet and swiftly chop the crown and leaves from the root with a single action. Working this way, he would leave a row of beets that could be forked into the back of a cart.

Today, mechanical sowing, herbicide application for weed control, and mechanical harvesting have displaced this reliance on manual farm work. A root beater uses a series of blades to chop the leaf and crown (which is high in nonsugar impurities) from the root. The beet harvester lifts the root, and removes excess soil from the root in a single pass over the field. A modern harvester is typically able to cover six rows at the same time. The beets are dumped into trucks as the harvester rolls down the field, and then delivered to the factory. The conveyor then removes more soil.

If the beets are to be left for later delivery, they are formed into clamps. Straw bales are used to shield the beets from the weather. Provided the clamp is well built with the right amount of ventilation, the beets do not significantly deteriorate. Beets that freeze and then defrost, produce complex carbohydrates that cause severe production problems in the factory. In the UK, loads may be hand examined at the factory gate before being accepted.

In the US, the fall harvest begins with the first hard frost, which arrests photosynthesis and the further growth of the root. Depending on the local climate, it may be carried out over the course of a few weeks or be prolonged throughout the winter months. The harvest and processing of the beet is referred to as "the campaign", reflecting the organization required to deliver the crop at a steady rate to processing factories that run 24 hours a day for the duration of the harvest and processing (for the UK, the campaign lasts about five months). In the Netherlands, this period is known as de bietencampagne, a time to be careful when driving on local roads in the area while the beets are being grown, because the naturally high clay content of the soil tends to cause slippery roads when soil falls from the trailers during transport.

Production statistics

Top Ten Sugar Beet Producers—2016  (FAO)[3]
Rank Country Production
(million tonnes)
1  Russia 51.36
2  France 33.79
3  United States 33.49
4  Germany 25.50
5  Turkey 19.46
6  Ukraine 14.01
7  Poland 13.52
8  Egypt 13.32
9  China 8.09
10  United Kingdom 5.69
Total World 277.23
Sugar beet output in 2009
Sugar beet output in 2009

The world harvested 250,191,362 metric tons (246,200,000 long tons; 275,800,000 short tons) of sugar beets in 2013. The world's largest producer was the United States, with a 39,321,161 metric tons (38,700,000 long tons; 43,300,000 short tons) harvest.[3] The average yield of sugar beet crops worldwide was 58.2 tonnes per hectare.

The most productive sugar beet farms in the world, in 2010, were in Chile, with a nationwide average yield of 87.3 tonnes per hectare.[33]

Imperial Valley (California) farmers have achieved yields of about 160 tonnes per hectare and over 26 tonnes sugar per hectare. Imperial Valley farms benefit from high intensities of incident sunlight and intensive use of irrigation and fertilizers.[34][35]

The sugar industry in the EU came under bureaucratic pressure in 2006 and ultimately resulted in the loss of 20,000 jobs, although many factories, as detailed in a later 2010 EU audit, were found to have been mistakenly shut down, as they were profitable without government intervention.[36] Western Europe, and Eastern Europe did not produce enough sugar from sugar beets to meet overall demand for sugar in 2010–2011, and were net importers of sugar.[4]



After they are harvested, beets are typically transported to a factory. In the UK, beets are transported by a hauler, or by a tractor and a trailer by local farmers. Railways and boats are no longer used. Some beets were carried by rail in the Republic of Ireland, until the complete shutdown of Irish Sugar beet production in 2006.

Each load is weighed and sampled before it gets tipped onto the reception area, typically a "flat pad" of concrete, where it is moved into large heaps. The beet sample is checked for

  • soil tare – the amount of nonbeet delivered
  • crown tare – the amount of low-sugar beet delivered
  • sugar content ("pol") - amount of sucrose in the crop
  • nitrogen content – for recommending future fertilizer use to the farmer.

From these elements, the actual sugar content of the load is calculated and the grower's payment determined.

The beet is moved from the heaps into a central channel or gulley, where it is washed towards the processing plant.

Dried sugar beet cossettes
Dried sugar beet cossettes

After reception at the processing plant, the beet roots are washed, mechanically sliced into thin strips called cossettes, and passed to a machine called a diffuser to extract the sugar content into a water solution.

Diffusers are long vessels of many metres in which the beet slices go in one direction while hot water goes in the opposite direction. The movement may either be caused by a rotating screw or the whole rotating unit, and the water and cossettes move through internal chambers. The three common designs of diffuser are the horizontal rotating 'RT' (Raffinerie Tirlemontoise, manufacturer), inclined screw 'DDS' (De Danske Sukkerfabrikker), or vertical screw "Tower". Modern tower extraction plants have a processing capacity of up to 17,000 metric tons (16,700 long tons; 18,700 short tons) per day.[37] A less-common design uses a moving belt of cossettes, with water pumped onto the top of the belt and poured through. In all cases, the flow rates of cossettes and water are in the ratio one to two. Typically, cossettes take about 90 minutes to pass through the diffuser, the water only 45 minutes. These countercurrent exchange methods extract more sugar from the cossettes using less water than if they merely sat in a hot water tank. The liquid exiting the diffuser is called raw juice. The colour of raw juice varies from black to a dark red depending on the amount of oxidation, which is itself dependent on diffuser design.

The used cossettes, or pulp, exit the diffuser at about 95% moisture, but low sucrose content. Using screw presses, the wet pulp is then pressed down to 75% moisture. This recovers additional sucrose in the liquid pressed out of the pulp, and reduces the energy needed to dry the pulp. The pressed pulp is dried and sold as animal feed, while the liquid pressed out of the pulp is combined with the raw juice, or more often introduced into the diffuser at the appropriate point in the countercurrent process. The final byproduct, vinasse, is used as fertilizer or growth substrate for yeast cultures.

During diffusion, a portion of the sucrose breaks down into invert sugars. These can undergo further breakdown into acids. These breakdown products are not only losses of sucrose, but also have knock-on effects reducing the final output of processed sugar from the factory. To limit (thermophilic) bacterial action, the feed water may be dosed with formaldehyde and control of the feed water pH is also practiced. Attempts at operating diffusion under alkaline conditions have been made, but the process has proven problematic. The improved sucrose extraction in the diffuser is offset by processing problems in the next stages.

A beet harvester
A beet harvester

Carbonatation is a procedure which removes impurities from raw juice before it undergoes crystallization.[38] First, the juice is mixed with hot milk of lime (a suspension of calcium hydroxide in water). This treatment precipitates a number of impurities, including multivalent anions such as sulfate, phosphate, citrate and oxalate, which precipitate as their calcium salts and large organic molecules such as proteins, saponins and pectins, which aggregate in the presence of multivalent cations. In addition, the alkaline conditions convert the simple sugars, glucose and fructose, along with the amino acid glutamine, to chemically stable carboxylic acids. Left untreated, these sugars and amines would eventually frustrate crystallization of the sucrose.

Next, carbon dioxide is bubbled through the alkaline sugar solution, precipitating the lime as calcium carbonate (chalk). The chalk particles entrap some impurities and absorb others. A recycling process builds up the size of chalk particles and a natural flocculation occurs where the heavy particles settle out in tanks (clarifiers). A final addition of more carbon dioxide precipitates more calcium from solution; this is filtered off, leaving a cleaner, golden light-brown sugar solution called thin juice.

Before entering the next stage, the thin juice may receive soda ash to modify the pH and sulphitation with a sulfur-based compound to reduce colour formation due to decomposition of monosaccharides under heat.

A sugar beet farm in Belgium: Beyond the field is the sugar factory.
A sugar beet farm in Belgium: Beyond the field is the sugar factory.

The thin juice is concentrated via multiple-effect evaporation to make a thick juice, roughly 60% sucrose by weight and similar in appearance to pancake syrup. Thick juice can be stored in tanks for later processing, reducing the load on the crystallization plant.


Thick juice is fed to the crystallizers. Recycled sugar is dissolved into it, and the resulting syrup is called mother liquor. The liquor is concentrated further by boiling under a vacuum in large vessels (the so-called vacuum pans) and seeded with fine sugar crystals. These crystals grow as sugar from the mother liquor forms around them. The resulting sugar crystal and syrup mix is called a massecuite, from "cooked mass" in French. The massecuite is passed to a centrifuge, where the High Green syrup is removed from the massecuite by centrifugal force. After a predetermined time, water is then sprayed into the centrifuge via a spray bar to wash the sugar crystals which produces Low Green syrup. The centrifuge then spins at very high speed to partially dry the crystals the machine then slows down and a plough shaped arm is deployed which ploughs out the sugar from the sides of the centrifuge from the top to the bottom onto conveying plant underneath where it is transported into a rotating granulator where it is dried using warm air.

The high green syrup is fed to a raw sugar vacuum pan from which a second batch of sugar is produced. This sugar ("raw") is of lower quality with more colour and impurities, and is the main source of the sugar dissolved again into the mother liquor. The syrup from the raw (Low green syrup) is boiled for a long time in AP Pans and sent to slowly flow around a series of about eight crystallisers. From this, a very low-quality sugar crystal is produced (known in some systems as "AP sugar") that is also redissolved. The syrup separated is molasses, which still contains sugar, but contains too much impurity to undergo further processing economically. The molasses is stored on site and is added to dried beet pulp to make animal feed. Some is also sold in bulk tankers.

Actual procedures may vary from the above description, with different recycling and crystallisation processes.

Other uses

Tuzemák, a sugar-beet-based alcohol brand from Czech Republic, is golden red in color.
Tuzemák, a sugar-beet-based alcohol brand from Czech Republic, is golden red in color.

In a number of countries, notably the Czech Republic and Slovakia, beet sugar is used to make a rum-like distilled spirit called Tuzemak. On the Åland Islands, a similar drink is made under the brand name Kobba Libre. In some European countries, especially in the Czech Republic and Germany, beet sugar is also used to make rectified spirit and vodka.

An unrefined sugary syrup is produced directly from the sugar beet. This thick, dark syrup is produced by cooking shredded sugar beet for several hours, then pressing the resulting mash and concentrating the juice produced until it has a consistency similar to that of honey and in the Czech Republic, beet sugar is used to make a rum-like distilled spirit all Czechs know as their rum, an alcoholic beverage called Tuzemák, formerly called Tuzemský rum (English: domestic rum).[39]

Sugar beet syrup
Sugar beet molasses in France, used as cattle fodder supplement
Sugar beet molasses in France, used as cattle fodder supplement

An unrefined sugary syrup can be produced directly from sugar beet. This thick, dark syrup is produced by cooking shredded sugar beet for several hours, then pressing the resulting mash and concentrating the juice produced until it has a consistency similar to that of honey. No other ingredients are used. In Germany, particularly the Rhineland area, this sugar beet syrup (called Zuckerrüben-Sirup or Zapp in German) is used as a spread for sandwiches, as well as for sweetening sauces, cakes and desserts.

Commercially, if the syrup has a dextrose equivalency (DE) above 30, the product has to be hydrolyzed and converted to a high-fructose syrup, much like high-fructose corn syrup, or isoglucose syrup in the EU.

Many road authorities in North America use desugared beet molasses as de-icing or anti-icing products in winter control operations. The molasses can be used directly,[40] combined with liquid chlorides and applied to road surfaces, or used to treat the salt spread on roads.[41] Molasses can be more advantageous than road salt alone because it reduces corrosion and lowers the freezing point of the salt-brine mix, so the de-icers remain effective at lower temperatures.[40] The addition of the liquid to rock salt has the additional benefits that it reduces the bounce and scatter of the rock salt, keeping it where it is needed, and reduces the activation time of the salt to begin the melting process.[41]


Betaine can be isolated from the byproducts of sugar beet processing. Production is chiefly through chromatographic separation, using techniques such as the "simulated moving bed".


Uridine can be isolated from sugar beet.

Alternative fuel

BP and Associated British Foods plan to use agricultural surpluses of sugar beet to produce biobutanol in East Anglia in the United Kingdom.

The feedstock-to-yield ratio for sugarbeet is 56:9. Therefore, it takes 6.22 kg of sugar beet to produce 1 kg of ethanol (approximately 1.27 l at room temperature).


Sugar beet farming using dam culture method.  Used in Russia, Germany, France, Ukraine, Turkey, China, Poland, and sometimes Egypt
Sugar beet farming using dam culture method. Used in Russia, Germany, France, Ukraine, Turkey, China, Poland, and sometimes Egypt

Sugar beets are an important part of a crop rotation cycle.

Sugar beet plants are susceptible to Rhizomania ("root madness"), which turns the bulbous tap root into many small roots, making the crop economically unprocessable. Strict controls are enforced in European countries to prevent the spread, but it is already endemic in some areas. It is also susceptible to the beet leaf curl virus, which causes crinkling and stunting of the leaves.

Continual research looks for varieties with resistance, as well as increased sugar yield. Sugar beet breeding research in the United States is most prominently conducted at various USDA Agricultural Research Stations, including one in Fort Collins, Colorado, headed by Linda Hanson and Leonard Panella; one in Fargo, North Dakota, headed by John Wieland; and one at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, headed by J. Mitchell McGrath.

Other economically important members of the Chenopodioideae subfamily:

Genetic modification

In the United States, genetically modified sugar beets, engineered for resistance to glyphosate, a herbicide marketed as Roundup, were developed by Monsanto as a genetically modified crop. In 2005, the US Department of Agriculture-Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS) deregulated glyphosate-resistant sugar beets after it conducted an environmental assessment and determined glyphosate-resistant sugar beets were highly unlikely to become a plant pest.[42][43] Sugar from glyphosate-resistant sugar beets has been approved for human and animal consumption in multiple countries, but commercial production of biotech beets has been approved only in the United States and Canada. Studies have concluded the sugar from glyphosate-resistant sugar beets has the same nutritional value as sugar from conventional sugar beets.[44] After deregulation in 2005, glyphosate-resistant sugar beets were extensively adopted in the United States. About 95% of sugar beet acres in the US were planted with glyphosate-resistant seed in 2011.[45]

Weeds may be chemically controlled using glyphosate without harming the crop. After planting sugar beet seed, weeds emerge in fields and growers apply glyphosate to control them. Glyphosate is commonly used in field crops because it controls a broad spectrum of weed species[46] and has a low toxicity.[47] A study from the UK[48] suggests yields of genetically modified beet were greater than conventional, while another from the North Dakota State University extension service found lower yields.[49] The introduction of glyphosate-resistant sugar beets may contribute to the growing number of glyphosate-resistant weeds, so Monsanto has developed a program to encourage growers to use different herbicide modes of action to control their weeds.[50]

In 2008, the Center for Food Safety, the Sierra Club, the Organic Seed Alliance and High Mowing Seeds filed a lawsuit against USDA-APHIS regarding their decision to deregulate glyphosate-resistant sugar beets in 2005. The organizations expressed concerns regarding glyphosate-resistant sugar beets' ability to potentially cross-pollinate with conventional sugar beets.[51] U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White, US District Court for the Northern District of California, revoked the deregulation of glyphosate-resistant sugar beets and declared it unlawful for growers to plant glyphosate-resistant sugar beets in the spring of 2011.[51][52] Believing a sugar shortage would occur USDA-APHIS developed three options in the environmental assessment to address the concerns of environmentalists.[53] In 2011, a federal appeals court for the Northern district of California in San Francisco overturned the ruling.[44] In July 2012, after completing an environmental impact assessment and a plant pest risk assessment the USDA deregulated Monsanto's Roundup Ready sugar beets.[54]

Genome and packaging into chromosomes

The sugar beet genome has been sequenced and two reference genome sequences have already been generated.[55][56] The genome size of the sugar beet is approximately 731 Megabases, and sugar beet DNA is packaged in 18 metacentric chromosomes (2n=2x=18).[57] All sugar beet centromeres are made up of a single satellite DNA family[58] and centromere-specific LTR retrotransposons.[59] More than 60 % of sugar beet's DNA is repetitive, mostly distributed in a dispersed way along the chromosomes.[60][61][62][63]

Crop wild beet populations (B. vulgaris ssp. maritima) have been sequenced as well, allowing for identification of the resistance gene Rz2 in the wild progenitor.[64] Rz2 confers resistance to rhizomania, commonly known as the sugar beet root madness disease.


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