Sugar Beet Campaign: Planting and Harvesting Sugar Beets on the Family Farm

Sugar beets are, and have been, an important cash crop on the family farm for decades. A Michigan woman talks about the process of cultivating sugar beets.

| Good Old Days

Sugar beets have been a family farm crop for many years, and through the years there have been many changes in their planting, thinning and harvesting.

The first sugar beet seeds literally exploded when planted, causing one seed to produce up to 15 little beet plants. Since there should be only one beet in about 10 to 12 inches of space, it was necessary to thin the beets. One person would block with the hoe, and the next person would crawl behind and from the clump pull out all beets except one. This, of course, was a very tedious job that required many hours of work.

In time, through experimentation, a segmented seed was developed, preventing so many beets from developing from one seed. Mechanical thinners also became popular for eliminating the extra beets in the row. We had a "Blackwelder" thinner that my husband simply attached to the back of the tractor. It was a device that covered about a two-inch clump of beets, cutting out about eight inches of other beets. We then followed in the row with a hoe, and removed all beets except one plant from this clump. At that time my children, along with some of their friends, and I thinned about 50 acres of beets in a year.

We now have what is called a mono-germ sugar beet seed. This means that only one plant comes up from one seed. Now the sugar beets are space planted, and the hand labor of thinning beets is completely eliminated.

When the farmer plants the beet seed, he also sprays herbicides in an eight- to l0-inch band on the beet row. In ideal weather conditions, the spray literally eliminates all weeds from coming up in the sugar beet row, again saving the hand labor of weeding the beets with a hoe. However, the beets need to be cultivated several times during the growing season to prevent the weeds from growing between the rows, which could literally choke the growing sugar beet. Ideally, the beets are planted in early April, but there are times when weather doesn't permit the farmer to do any planting until late May.

Beets were originally harvested by hand, but in the early '40s, a mechanical beet harvester that was pulled by a tractor appeared on the scene. This harvested one or two rows of beets at one time. Defoliators, which beat the leaves off the beets before the harvester came along and lifted the beets out of the ground, were also invented.



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