The sugar beet comeback

Jul 7, 2011

Sugar beets are large white beets that grow well in Michigan’s cooler climate. In fact, farmers have grown sugar beets in the Bay area for more than 100 years. The beets are planted at the end of April and harvested at the beginning of September. From then until March, the beets are processed into sugar.

Refineries run 24 hours a day and seven days a week with no breaks for holidays. If machines were to stop in the middle of the process, sticky molasses would harden inside the equipment. In the end, the sugar beets become white granular sugar, powdered sugar, or brown sugar. If you’ve bought a bag of sugar at a Michigan grocery store, chances are it’s sugar beet sugar from the Michigan Sugar Company.

Things are going pretty well for the Michigan sugar industry now. But twenty years ago, the industry nearly dissolved. Steve Poindexter is a sugar beet specialist with Michigan State University:

“The sugar industry, back in the ‘90s, was struggling, trying to get production up. The yields were down and not going up, and profitability was very low.”

That was the result of a push toward raising beets with higher sugar content. The experiment was a failure. The low yields caused many farmers to stop growing beets. Things got so bad, Michigan sugar beet farmers were granted almost 20 million dollars in disaster funds.

In addition, MSU and the Michigan sugar industry decided to form a partnership to reinvigorate the sugar beet industry. They’ve since doubled the number of sugar beets grown per acre in Michigan. They also improved the amount of sugar harvested from each beet.

But there were other problems with the industry. The two sugar processing companies in Michigan were private companies with shareholders. Low returns on sugar beet sugar prompted the owners to sell. The sugar beet farmers decided to buy the refineries and create a cooperative sugar beet industry in Michigan.
All sugar grown in Michigan is now part of the Michigan Sugar Company cooperative.

Ray VanDreissche is a sugar beet farmer. He’s also with the Michigan Sugar Company. He says farmers produce better sugar because they have a greater stake in the end product now:

“The growers are investing money to become more efficient, get better extraction, investing into new equipment such as new packing equipment which is increasing sales, it’s just a good combination all the way around.”

VanDreissche says the company has started to see more demand from Michigan consumers who want to “buy local.” He has also seen more interest from Michigan companies who want to buy from other Michigan companies:

“Whether it would be somebody that’s making something like Jiffy, Jiffy Mix, or cereal manufacturers, somebody that’s making baked goods, ice cream, as a matter of fact, a lot of the fudge that’s made on Mackinac  Island is primarily from the Michigan Sugar Company.”

VanDreissche says because of the increased demand, they were able to hire more workers in recent years.

The sugar beet industry does not receive direct federal subsidies. Instead, there are import quotas on foreign sugar. But sugar beet farmers still have limits on their growth. The federal government regulates how many units of sugar the industry can produce. A surplus one year means farmers will have to plant fewer beets the next year.

But sugar beet farmers are optimistic. There’s a growing interest in “natural” sweeteners that’s made sugar beet sugar more popular than ever.

-Bridget Bodnar for The Environment Report