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Randy Schwalm holds a sugar beet Sept. 14 in his 120-acre field south of Windsor. Times-Call/Erin McCracken
We got the Beets: Despite Decline From Booming Past, Sugar Still a Vital Crop

Crowl, Douglas. "We got the Beets: Despite Decline From Booming Past, Sugar Still a Vital Crop." Daily Times - Call, 2 October 2006.


WINDSOR- Randy Schwalm walked through his sugar beet field, looking over rows of the leafy plants whose roots are the white starchy beets used to make sugar.

The third-generation farmer kicked a few of the plants, looking for the best specimen. Finally, he crouched like a catcher preparing for a pitch, grabbed a plant and yanked the beet from its earthly womb.

There we go, he said. Thats what a beet should look like.

Schwalms paternal oversight of his beet field is natural. Though he grows other crops on the 500-acre farm south of Windsor, the 120 acres of sugar beets are his lifeblood crop.

Beets cost more to produce, but they pay more per acre than anything else he has in the ground.

This is the crop my family enjoys to grow, Schwalm said, recalling how his family comes out to help each harvest season; this years beet harvest begins in about a month.

Its a family thing, he said. If you check, a lot of other families are the same way.

This year, 400 Colorado sugar beet farmers planted 38,300 acres, forecast to produce 881,000 tons of beets, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The industry generates $92 million in gross revenue in Colorado, according to Western Sugar Cooperative.

Still, sugar beets constitute a fraction of the states crops, last year producing 0.6 percent of the states total agricultural receipts, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Livestock is king in Colorado, with 74.2 percent of the receipts; among crops, corn leads the way at 4.9 percent.

But beets are still important.

Its not in the top five, but its a major, said Steve Anderson, deputy director of the USDAs National Agricultural Statistics Service in Colorado.

Most farmers in the state, he said, are clustered in the north and east, where sugar beets still have an impact on the economy.

Still, the beet industry is only a shadow of its former self. In 1930, the industrys benchmark year, farmers grew 3,312 tons of the roots on 232,000 acres, according to the USDA.

Rich sugar beet past

Today, the fossils of the once-booming sugar beet industry can be seen scattered around the countryside.

Partly abandoned sugar mills, many crumbling with time, are found in many northern Colorado towns, including Longmont, Loveland, Fort Collins, Johnstown and Windsor.

Less obvious are the old beet dumps and scales, where crops were weighed and then hauled away by train. Those trains traveled on 86 miles of track, 50 miles of which are still in use.

It was the biggest industry in all of northern Colorado by a long ways, local historian and author Ken Jessen said.

Tens of thousands of people likely took home paychecks related to sugar beet crops, including workers in factories, on railroads and in the fields, he said.

In 1900, nobody in northern Colorado grew sugar beets. By the summer of 1905, nearly every farmer had them in the ground, and several towns had built mills to process them.

This happened, you might say, overnight, Jessen said.

Only 80 years before, French scientists, under Napoleon Bonaparte, had perfected the process of transforming beets into sugar, in response to Englands blockade of sugar cane into much of Europe.

Around 1900, the Great Western Sugar Co. in Denver identified northern Colorado as a prime place to grow beets and build mills to transform the starchy roots into white gold.

The company offered to build sugar mills if towns would provide the land. Irrigation systems were already in place to water the crops.

An influx of immigrants followed, many planting their roots along the Front Range.

One ethnic group that came to work the beet fields was the Volgadeutsche, ethnic Germans from Russia, of which Schwalm is a descendent.

In the 1760s, Catherine the Great invited Germans to farm in Russia, promising not to draft the men into the army and to let the immigrants keep their German heritage. The promise of a better life lured many to the Volga River area.

The promises was broken in the late 1800s, sparking thousands to immigrate to the United States. Many were coaxed to Colorado by Great Western recruiters offering free train tickets and good jobs.

Schwalms grandfather came through Canada to Sterling and eventually closer to the Front Range to work the beet fields before acquiring his own land.

Japanese, Italians, Russians and Mexicans also came to northern Colorado and established communities.

Decline and sustain

Drought and urbanization caused the sugar beet industrys slow and steady decline, said Kent Wimmer, director of shareholder administration for Western Sugar Cooperative.

Great Western eventually became Western Sugar, now a farmer-owned co-op with 1,427 shareholders from Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana.

The intense drought years of 2001 and 2002 dealt the latest major blow to the industry, Wimmer said. It reduced sugar beet yields enough to close a mill in Greeley.

That left Fort Morgans sugar mill as the last in Colorado. In the 1960s, Great Western operated 18 mills, Wimmer said.

But with modern technologys ability to break down beets starches, one mill can produce at least half the sugar those 18 mills produced, Wimmer said.

Still, fewer farmers are cashing in.

It takes 30 inches of moisture to grow a 20-ton crop of sugar beets. However, Colorado averages 15 to 18 inches in the growing season, making beet farmers dependent on irrigation.

Water is just a huge key to our success, Wimmer emphasized. Its a great asset when you have ample water. You turn this area into a cornucopia.

Without it, beets simply wont grow, as many farmers along the South Platte learned this summer when the state cut off their wells due to drought conditions. About 50 to 60 beet growers will have diminished yields this fall as a result, Wimmer said.

Despite the setback, Colorado is expected to grow more beets this year than last because of ample water in other parts of the state, he said.

But if you are one of the 50 to 60 growers, its a hell of an impact, Wimmer said. But we are looking at a good crop in its entirety.

In fact, the 881,000 tons of beets projected for harvest this fall mark a continued rebound from 2002. That year, growers formed a co-op and took over Western Sugar, which Wimmer said will help keep the industry stable.

Its a trend that agricultural producers are being encouraged to follow, he noted.

We have a very optimistic future, Wimmer said. We have a strong cooperative base across the four states.

Reprinted with permission of the Daily Times-Call.


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