Robert M. Harveson

Related to Table Beet

The sugarbeet as we know it today is derived from many years of breeding the domesticated beet (Beta vulgaris L.). It is said to get its name from the Greek letter beta because the swollen, turnip-like root resembles a Greek B.  However, the oldest known beet type, chard, was domesticated by at least 2000 B.C, and was grown by both the Greeks and Romans. Chard was originally used medicinally and for its dense foliage growth as a pot herb much like spinach or some of the Chinese leaf vegetables are used today. 

The swollen, fleshy taproot familiar today was not known until the second and third century, A.D. Beetroot, both red and white, were developed in Italy (thus known as the “Roman beet”) by selection from the wild beets native to the seascoasts of the Mediterranean. It was also found throughout Europe and hybridized with leaf beet types (chard) to produce the vast range of color and shape found in table beets today. It was used as a vegetable and was boiled in stews, baked in tarts, and roasted whole. White beets appear to have been more common, but less desirable than the red.

During the 18th century, the large-rooted beets, known as the mangel-wurzel, were being fed to cattle. They were introduced into England in the 1770’s for use as livestock feed after being developed from early fodder beets in Germany and Holland. An unfortunate English mistranslation of the German mangold-wurzel (“beet-root”) as mangel-wurzel (“scarcity root”) resulted in the belief that this plant would be excellent food for the poor during periods of famine, but turned out to be better suited for cows. 

Beets were brought to North America by American colonists, but it is not known when for certain. They were well established by the eighteenth century, as mention is made of chard, and red, white, and yellow beetroot being grown in U.S. gardens in the early 1800’s. George Washington conducted experiments with them at Mount Vernon and by 1888, Burpee’s Farm Annual offered seven different types of mangels, twelve varieties of table beets, and one variety of chard.

Developing the Sugar Beet of Today

During the mid-1700’s, the German chemist Andreas Margraff discovered that both white and the red beetroot contained sucrose, which was indistinguishable from that produced from cane. He predicted then that domestic use and manufacture of sugar was possible in temperate climates, but these ideas would not be realized for another 50 years until new ways of extraction could be developed. 

One of Margraff’s students, Franz Karl Achard, conducted research in this area and because of his success in establishing the beet as an economic source of sucrose in Europe, he is now considered to be the father of the sugarbeet industry. He built the first sugar factory at Cunern in lower Silesia (modern day Poland), and developed effective processing methods using the poor germplasm sources from genepool of the white fodder
available at that time. The development of the beet sugar industry of Germany, France, and other European countries can be traced to these humble beginnings,as he freely shared the results of these researches with others.

Prior to this time, sugar was only obtained from the tropical sugar cane and was prohibitively expensive for most Europeans. During the early 1800’s most sugar was obtained from the West Indies. After supplies were cut off by the English blockade of continental Europe during the Napoleonic Wars, the demand for sugar grew throughout Europe.  Napoleon encouraged new research with sugar beets, and between 1810 and 1815, over 79,000 acres were put into production with more than 300 small factories being built in France. After Napoleon’s fall, sugar again was readily available from the tropics, and prices collapsed due to excess supplies. The majority of the factories were closed, and new development proceeded slowly.  However, after the decline of slavery in the West Indies, the European industry became more competitive with the tropical source of sucrose, and by the 1850’s, the industry had become well established and operating over most of the continent.

Establishing beet factories in the United States

After gaining a place in Europe, numerous attempts were made to introduce sugar beet production in the United States.  The first effort to grow sugar beets was in 1830 in Philadelphia but no factory was ever built, and the idea was abandoned.  The first factory built in the U. S. was at Northampton, Massachusetts in 1838, but ceased operating after 1840.  Other unsuccessful attempts were made to establish factories in Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan.

In the early 1850’s, Mormon pioneers began to investigate local sugar beet cultivation and sucrose processing as a home industry to make themselves more independent.  They established a factory near Salt Lake City in 1852 from machinery brought from England, and transported to Utah by covered wagon from Kansas.  Unfortunately, due to a lack of knowledge of chemical processing, this attempt also was unsuccessful for producing crystallized sucrose, but it did pave the road for the future development of sugar beet culture and processing in the western United States.  The first successful commercial production of beet sugar in the U. S. began in central California in 1870.  By 1890, two factories were operating in Alvarado (now known as Union City) and Watsonville.

Throughout the history of the sugar beet industry in the U.S. many factories have been started but operated only for a short period of time.  These start-up efforts often were done on a trial and error basis, moving around frequently from place to place, trying to find that right combination of factors that would result in greater long term success.  Many of the problems encountered were due to the sugar beet seed that was being imported from Europe.  It was learned early by researchers with the Department of Agriculture that superior results were obtained when using home-produced cultivars, yet the industry continued to insist on using imported products.  This way of thinking continued to inhibit continual success for producing beet sugar in certain areas. 

Beet production today

Sugarbeet, as it is known today, is unique among food plants in use throughout the world in that it is a product of breeding research, and also became a model for improving plant performance through genetics and breeding.  The sugar beet plant is also unique in history by its role as a catalyst in revolutionizing agriculture.  Growing sugar beets in Europe at that time changed the previous small grain monoculture and introduced the concept of crop rotation.  This created the system for manuring and better soil fertility and reducing weed problems, while also supplying a source of food for livestock from beet tops, crowns and pulp. 

Of the current world production of more than 130 million metric tons of sugar, about 35% comes from sugar beet and 65% from sugar cane.  In the USA, about 50-55% of the domestic production of about 8.4 million metric tons derives from sugar beet.  Sugar beet is grown mostly in the temperate zone from plantings made in April and harvested in the fall. Today 11 states and two provinces within four diverse regions are involved with sugar beet production in North America (Figure 1).  These areas include the upper Midwest (Minnesota and North Dakota), the far west (California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington), the Great Plains (Colorado, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, and Alberta), and the Great Lakes (Michigan and Ontario; Ohio ceased production in 2005).