Sugarbeets are an important cash crop for Michigan farmers and also provides jobs and contributes to the local economy. Sugarbeets are grown mostly in the thumb of Michigan and around Saginaw. Michigan Sugar Company is a grower owned cooperative meaning that the growers own the company. The Michigan Sugar Cooperative has approximately 1,250 farmer-members who grow sugarbeets on 175,000 acres of land each year. The sugarbeets are then processed into sugar at factories located in Bay City, Sebewaing, Caro and Croswell.
Sugarbeets are a difficult and expensive crop to grow but can also return more money to the growers than other common crops such as wheat, corn or soybeans. Sugarbeets are planted in the early spring. Farmers prepare the ground for planting by plowing the previous fall and then lightly cultivating the ground (stirring up the dirt) in the spring just before planting. Growers also apply fertilizers before planting to help the sugarbeets grow. Sugarbeet seeds are small (about the size of a BB) and are planted about one inch deep into the soil. The seeds are spaced about four inches apart in rows. It usually takes a week or two for the sugarbeets to germinate and emerge from the soil.
Young sugarbeet seedlings are called cotyledons (see picture to the right). These cotyledons face many obstacles to their survival. Soil diseases, insects and crusted soil (soil that has hardened) caused by hard rains prevent some seeds from surviving. The seeds are treated with fungicides to help in their battle against soil diseases. If insects such as cutworms (similar to caterpillars) are attacking the young plants, growers can spray an insecticide to kill the insects. Weeds are also a major problem for sugarbeet growers. Many times, there will be more weeds coming up than sugarbeets. Weeds take away the much needed water and nutrients from the soil and shade small sugarbeets. If not controlled, weeds will choke out (out grow) the sugarbeets. Growers use a combination of herbicides (chemical), cultivation and people (physical labor) to remove the weeds from the sugarbeet rows. The sugarbeet cultivator (see picture above of field that was just cultivated) is a series of sweeps (like little hoes) mounted to a tractor. As the tractor moves through the field, the weeds between the sugarbeet rows are hoed out but the sugarbeets are not damaged.
The weather is very important to sugarbeets. If the soil is too dry, the seeds will not germinate and heavy rains can drown out the sugarbeets. Freezing weather can also kill small seedlings. After planting, the farmer is hoping for some warm weather and soft rains, maybe about one inch of rain per week. Strong winds can cause the sugarbeets to twist and turn and along with blowing soil the sugarbeets can be cut in half by the wind. Sugarbeet growers have learned different ways to help combat the weather, but occasionally the crop can be lost or severely damaged.
After sugarbeets get a little bigger (6 to 12 inches tall and roots look like small carrots) they are able to withstand harsh weather and insect problems. By mid-summer, sugarbeets will have leaves that are one to two feet tall and will begin storing sugar in their roots. Several diseases attack sugarbeets throughout the summer and the farmer may need to spray fungicides to fight off the diseases.
The root of the sugarbeet plant is harvested. This harvest usually begins about October 1. First, farmers will defoliate the beets (take off the leaves) with a machine called a sugarbeet topper or defoliator. The harvester follows closely behind the topper, pops the beets out of the ground, and moves them up into a bin. Dirt is removed from the sugarbeets by shaking the beets using rollers on the way to the bin. The beets are then loaded into trucks, taken to the sugar factory, and put in a very large pile. The piles are 20 feet high, 200 feet wide and over 1,000 feet long.
In the sugar factory, sugarbeets are turned into pure sugar. First, the beets are washed and fed into a machine that slices the beets into long, small pieces called cossettes (like very small french fries - see picture at left). The cossettes are dumped into a very large tank filled with hot water called a diffuser. As the cossettes move through the diffuser, the sugar comes out of the cossettes and goes into solution (sugar water). The sugar water is pumped through a series of tanks and filters that then remove the water and the impurities leaving only pure white sugar. The sugar factory calls this processing period their "campaign." It takes the sugar factories about five months to process the 3.7 million tons of sugarbeets into 970 million pounds of pure, white sugar.