Sugar Beet Campaign: Planting and Harvesting Sugar Beets on the Family Farm
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.
A good sugar beet yield is 25 tons of beets per acre, with a sugar content of 17-18 percent per acre. When the sugar beets are taken to the processing plant, the loaded truck is weighed, then proceeds to a beet piler. About five beets are taken from various parts of the truckload, and these are tested for sugar content. The beets are then unloaded from the truck, the dirt that has been shaken from the beets is loaded onto the farmer’s truck, and he again crosses the scales. The weight of the empty truck is then deducted from the weight of the full truck, and the remaining number is the actual tons of beets that were brought in on that truck.
When the beets reach the processing plant, they are washed, sliced, and placed in a very large cooker. After the appropriate length of cooking time, they go into a spinning process whereby the sugar gets spun away from the beet pulp and comes out of the cooker as fine grains of white sugar.
Besides granulated white sugar, there are also sugar beet by-products, namely beet pulp and molasses. These by-products are utilized as cattle feed.
The sugar beet campaign starts in October when the first loads of beets arrive at the factory, and lasts until the very last beet has been taken from the very last pile-usually in February.
Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.
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