If you live in the Saginaw valley or thumb area of Michigan you generally know when sugar beet harvest begins. Huge trucks rumble down the roads piled high with muddy beets on their way to the processing plants. If you live near the processing plants you get used to the stinky smell of cooking sugar, which leads to sweet profits for Michigan farmers and sugar producers. In 2014 Michigan sugar beet producers look like they will have a bumper crop, with fields averaging a record 30 tons per acre.
Sugar can be made from both sugar cane and sugar beets, and the taste is identical, but cane can’t be grown in colder areas. Sugar cane is a perennial crop, the thick bamboo- like stems grow anew each spring and are chopped off at harvest, leaving the roots to grow a new harvest. Sugar beets are an annual crop, the whole beet is harvested in late fall. Sugar beets are grown in areas where corn and wheat grow and are part of crop rotations; a sugar beet crop isn’t grown in the same fields two years in a row. Besides Michigan sugar beets are grown in northern Ohio, Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Nebraska, Colorado and central California.
How sugar beets are harvested
Sugar beets look much like the table beets gardeners grow except they are white and much larger. A green broad leafed top about a foot high produces the big, roughly round, white roots. When harvested, the sugar beets can weigh three pounds or more. They are planted in the spring and harvested in late fall. Here’s how sugar beets are harvested.
First a mowing type machine cuts off the beet tops and leaves them lying in the field. Then another machine comes through, it digs up the beets and twirls them around in a big hamster wheel sort of thing to get the soil off, and dumps them on the ground. Then a tractor pulls a machine across the beets, sucking them up and spitting them through a tall pipe into a dump wagon being pulled by another tractor following alongside the first.
When the dump wagon is full the tractor chugs it down to the waiting double trailer gravel hauler type trucks, the wagon is lifted by hydraulics and the beets dumped over the sides of the big truck. When the big trailers are full they take off and another takes it place. Sugar processing facilities have designated places where the beets are dumped and stored to wait processing.
Sugar beets fields are harvested from daylight to long after dark until the beets are all harvested. Sugar beets can’t be harvested when it’s too warm as they rot in storage and after sitting in piles through the winter some beets that have frozen are unusable so it’s a race to process the beets. Michigan factories have the capabilities to process slightly less than 5 million tons of beets.
How sugar is made in Michigan
A hundred years ago sugar beet processing was widely spread across Michigan and sugar beets were grown all over the state. Now most of the sugar beet production and processing facilities are located in the Thumb-Saginaw Valley area.
In Michigan there are sugar beet processors in Caro, Bay City, Sebewaing, Croswell and Carrollton. Processing starts at the beginning of beet harvest – usually beginning in late September and runs through February. It runs 24 hours a day every day of the week until the supply of beets are gone. About 4 thousand tons of beets are processed each day. Here’s a rough idea of what happens at the Caro facility- (Michigan Sugar Company).
First the beets are dumped into water “flumes”. The beets float and rocks and other debris are separated out. The rocks collected from the flumes are sold to landscapers and road construction companies, some 60 tons of rocks are removed daily. Then the beets go into the beet washers, which scrub off the dirt. Scrubbers have magnets that collect any metal that have entered with the beets.
From the scrubbers beets go on conveyors to the slicers, which slice them into thin slices that look like waffle cut fries, and are called cossettes. The slices go into diffusors filled with hot water where they are squeezed and pressed to extract the sugar from the beet slices. The pulp that’s left is separated off and a sweet but watery liquid is left behind. The pulp is dried and sold as animal feed.
At this point the raw sugar “juice” still has impurities so it is pumped into tanks called “olivers” where lime is added and the mix is carbonated with carbon dioxide. Impurities bind to the lime and form a mushy cake, which is separated from the remaining juice. The lime is collected in ponds outside and – you guessed it- sold in the spring as agricultural lime.
The purified sugar juice goes into pressurized distillers which evaporate off the water at a low boil, the juice running from one tank to the next as the mixture gets to a thick syrup stage called massecite and begins to crystalize. At this point the thick syrup is carefully monitored by workers with computerized equipment and at just the right stage it’s sent to centrifugals, which spin the liquid at high speeds, drying and collecting the sugar crystals that form and draining off molasses, the part that doesn’t crystalize. Yep- this by-product is sold too. It’s used in animal feed and pharmaceuticals.
When the sugar crystals are dried they are pure white. (The brown sugar used in baking either comes from cane sugar or ingredients like cane molasses are added to the beet sugar). The sugar is packaged and it’s done. From the beets entering the flues to finished sugar takes about 5 hours. Each sugar beet produces about 3 teaspoons of finished sugar. There’s 270-290 pounds of sugar produced from each ton of beets. Michigan produces about a billion pounds of sugar each year. A billion pounds- but despite that we still import sugar into the state each year. It’s not that Michigan residents eat more sugar than that but Michigan has several large food companies that produce cereal and other goods that require a lot of sugar.
Can you make your own sugar from sugar beets?
Yes you can although it isn’t actually easy and your sugar production won’t be as efficient as a factory. You could use any beets for sugar but if you use red beets you won’t get as much sugar and what you make will be pink. Sugar beet seed can be bought from several seed companies that sell seed for gardeners. Richter’s ( www.richters.com) and Bakers Creek ( www.rareseeds.com/) sell sugar beet seeds (and probably other companies too). The beets are easy to grow, just like table beets and can weigh several pounds when harvested.
Remember that each beet will produce just a couple of teaspoons of sugar in the best conditions. You can get some directions for home sugar production here https://www.richters.com/show.cgi?page=InfoSheets/d1340.html
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