Meet the Sugar Beet 

Idaho's not so sweet sugar beet industry

Beet sugar sweetens everything from soup to syrup.

Guy Hand

Beet sugar sweetens everything from soup to syrup.

I remember seeing them along the roadside. As a kid growing up in rural Idaho, those orphaned gray lumps were a common sight. I even kicked one once, then picked it up, dusted it off and bit into it. That was a mistake.

I hadn't thought much about sugar beets since, at least until they hit the news as one more of Monsanto's contested, genetically modified crops. Like GM alfalfa, GM sugar beets are thought to pose a threat to organic farming by potentially spreading their tinkered-with genetic code via pollen to other crops. Because of that risk, a federal judge banned this spring's planting of so-called Roundup Ready sugar beets, a biotech beet modified to withstand Roundup, a Monsanto herbicide that kills weeds but not the genetically immune beet itself. But then, two weeks ago, the United States Department of Agriculture partially lifted that ban prompting environmental groups to file suit and the sugar beet industry to file counter suit.

This not-so-sweet courthouse controversy got me thinking. Too often the only time the average eater hears about commodities like sugar beets or alfalfa is when they get tangled in the courts. The botanical fundamentals get lost. Just what the heck is a sugar beet anyway? I may have grown up where sugar beets routinely tumbled off trucks and where I had even tried to eat one (finding it only slightly sweeter and as fiber-filled as a mouthful of rope), but that didn't give me a modicum of insight into the thing itself.

So, a few weeks ago I drove a sleety, semi-truck-choked Interstate 84 east to the annual Snake River Sugar Beet Conference in Twin Falls. There I asked professor Don Morishita of the Kimberly Research Center a seemly simple question:

"What is a sugar beet?"

"A sugar beet is a root crop," he said with the affable air of a scientist both immersed in all things beety and relieved, I suspect, to meet a writer whose first question didn't contain the words Roundup or Monsanto.

"It's really kind of an interesting crop because it's related to table beets," he said, leaning in for emphasis. "In fact they're the same species as table beets, and it's also the same species as Swiss chard. So Swiss chard, table beets and sugar beets are the same thing. It's just that over the years the plant breeders or the geneticists have been able to make some modifications that got different uses out of the same plant."

In other words, sugar beets are the love child of a kind of old-fashioned, low-tech genetic modification that humans dabbled in millennia before Monsanto, the same kind of basic breeding that got us Labradoodles and Chihuahuas from the less cuddly wolf.

Before humans bred sugar beets into existence, they had to settle for honey and then sugar cane to cure that sugar craving. In the late 16th century, though, someone noted that a certain white beet, when cooked, yielded a very sweet juice. In the 18th century the chemist Andreas Marggraf found that same juice to contain sucrose, the precise sugar compound found in sugar cane.

With a tone that signaled he was letting me in on a sweet little secret to understanding human history, Morishita said, "Sugar beets and sugar cane are the only two species where sucrose is the primary extract from that plant."

That seemingly arcane tidbit was as significant as Morishita's manner suggested. After all, sweetness was once a rarity in the world. Entire lives were lived without a fleeting hint of it. There was honey, of course, but it was as precious as liquid gold. Then came cane sugar. But the tall grass that produced it grew only in the tropics, and table sugar was a luxury that only the rich could afford. Cane was also a crop fertilized with slavery, colonialism and warfare.

Until, apparently, the liberating influence of Napoleon.

"The sugar beet industry actually came to existence in France in the days of Napoleon," said Vic Jaro, president and CEO of Idaho's Amalgamated Sugar Company and another participant at the sugar beet conference, adding another piece to the sugar beet puzzle.

"It was very difficult to get access to some of the cane sugar because of the wars that were going on," Jaro said. "And they wanted to be self sufficient on sugar, and so they came up with the sugar beet."

The French, under Napoleon's urging, bred various strains of beet and by 1813 had more than 300 factories producing close to 4,000 tons of sugar. The humble sugar beet was slowly breaking the bitter monopolistic grip that tropical plantation barons had on the planet's sweet tooth. By 1885 the world was producing more beet than cane sugar as production moved to far less tropical locales. Amalgamated Sugar, according to Jaro, opened a plant in Utah in 1897. Idaho's sugar beet industry started not long after.

"The first sugar beet factory in Twin Falls was built around 1915 or 1916," Morishita added.

Today, Amalgamated Sugar has three processing plants in Idaho, including the massive Mini-Cassia factory in Paul.

"It's the largest beet sugar factory in the country, and if you really want to take it in terms of how many beets are sliced there in a year's period, it is actually the largest sugar beet factory in the world," Jaro claimed.

The farmers I talked to at the conference were as proud of Idaho's sugar beet industry as Jaro.

"It pays the mortgage," they all said, often in unison. They said, too, that sugar beets are relatively easy to grow and dependable--they seldom experience the commodity price ups and downs of many crops. They're a stable staple--at least until that federal judge, the USDA and the resulting suits and counter suits halted this spring's planting of genetically modified beets. But when I mentioned the Monsanto word, those same farmers became far less effusive. More than 90 percent of the nation's sugar beet farmers had adopted the extremely popular Roundup Ready beet variety before the federal ban, and many are tired of being asked about what they see as a false controversy cooked up by environmentalists and organic growers. It's a controversy, they say, that threatens their livelihoods. So I asked a question I thought would be less controversial.

"Can you cook with sugar beets?"

"What was that?"

"Can you cook with sugar beets? Is there any sort of normal household use for sugar beets?"

"No there isn't," one farmer said curtly, as if I'd asked if you could carve sugar beets into shoes. "I mean they're just used in the, you know, process," he said, apparently scanning me for possible head injuries. "It's used in the process to get the sugar extracted at the factory."

From his let-me-spell-this-out-for-you syntax, I could tell that he'd identified me as someone orbiting well outside of his agriculture world--a foodie, or worse, someone who naively equated all farming to food. He, on the other hand, knew his job as something more complicated, an industrial pursuit planted with crops as often bred for the assembly line as for the kitchen table.

Only an idiot, he seemed to suggest, would try to eat a sugar beet.

Of course, he was right. The sugar beet is an inedible tuber that I now know helped, in its small way to break the back of colonialism, sweeten lives (including those of dentists) and provide high desert farmers with a crop they could (until recently) count on.

Sadly though, sugar beets are a locally grown vegetable that won't likely be embraced by locavores--although I gather you can, with a ridiculous amount of time and labor, make your own sugar. You can also--and this might perk up the moonshine-inclined locavore with an excess of copper tubing and a hankering for the illicit--make your own sugar beet rum.

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