Is Minnesota really one of the top sugar producers in the country?

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Americans consume beet sugar every day, whether they realize it or not.

Unless the bag says otherwise, the sugar lining grocery store shelves and tucked away in our kitchen cupboards probably comes from beets. And those beets probably grew in Minnesota.

Sugar beets are big business in Minnesota, as the state’s third most valuable crop after corn and soybeans.

One reader recalls learning in school that Minnesota was America’s sugar beet capital. They wanted to know if that was true, so they sought answers from the Star Tribune reader-powered feature, Curious Minnesota.

The answer: a resounding betcha.

A sweet harvest

Minnesota produced one-third of the country’s total sugar beet harvest in 2021, or 12.3 million tons of the sweet vegetable, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Second among the nation’s 11 sugar beet-growing states was Idaho, which grew about half that of Minnesota.

In fact, North Star State has been the national leader in sugar beet production for over 30 years.

This does not, however, make Minnesota the largest sugar producer in the country. About 40% of the country’s sugar comes from sugar cane, which is grown extensively in Florida and Louisiana. These two southern states contain more sugar than Minnesota, according to the USDA.

According to the USDA, beets provide about 60% of the white table sugar produced in the country. If not specified on the label, sugar purchased from stores is likely to be from beets or a mixture of beets and cane.

The quality and taste of sugar extracted from sugar beets is almost identical to that extracted from sugar cane, which is why the humble beet became the major commodity it is today.

About 3,500 Minnesota family farms grow sugar beets for three cooperatives: American Crystal Sugar; Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative; and Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative. Each cooperative processes sugar from sugar beets and is wholly owned by the farmers.

“Minnesota farms grow sugar; sugar isn’t made in the lab,” wrote Thomas Peters, the sugar beet agronomist for the University of Minnesota Extension and the University of Minnesota Extension. North Dakota State University, in broad industry insight provided for this story.

Why sugar beets?

In the 18th century, German chemists discovered how to form sugar crystals from pulverized beets. The resulting sucrose crystals mirrored sugar derived from sugar cane for millennia, but were much cheaper than importing cane from the tropics.

This innovation helped launch the European sugar beet industry, which was later exported to North America.

“Immigrants to Minnesota in the mid-1800s, many of whom had family members familiar with growing sugar beets, planted various crops, including sugar beets, to test the agricultural possibilities of the land. “, wrote Peters. “The rich, fertile soils of northwest, west-central, and south-central Minnesota, combined with 12 to 15 hours of summer sun, plenty of precipitation, and cooler temperatures during the accumulation of sugar, benefit sugar beets.”

Similar in shape to the typical red beet found in grocery stores and farmers’ markets, sugar beets are white and can grow up to 18 inches long. They weigh between 2 and 5 pounds at harvest.

Modern sugar beets are approximately 75% water, 5% pulp, and up to 20% sugar – a surprisingly high concentration that makes sugar beets an economical choice for sugar extraction.

If sweeter fruits seem like a more obvious source of sugar, consider the higher prices growers get even for unprocessed apples, berries and melons — and the higher cost to grow them.

Sugar at the store sells for about 55 cents a pound. Apples at Walmart were on sale for $1.57 a pound last week.

Sugar beets also contain significantly more sucrose – as opposed to fructose and glucose – which converts more easily into white table sugar or brown sugar. The USDA makes it clear: “This is a hardy crop grown in a wide variety of temperate climatic conditions.”

Farm to table (sugar)

Planted from mid-April to mid-May, sugar beets are generally harvested for processing from late August to October. Then the processing plants light up, creating a distinct aroma that wafts across the prairie as communities come together to support the harvest.

The treatment involves cutting the beets into long, thin strips and soaking them in hot water to remove the sucrose. This sugar-water mixture is sanitized, boiled and dried, leaving behind sugar crystals. The remaining pulp is processed and sold as animal feed.

“Sugar beet harvesting is a communal activity due to its 24-hour schedule and the number of people taking part-time jobs or taking full-time vacations to support family members,” Peters wrote.

And it’s not just farmers and truckers involved in the harvest. “You can buy a sandwich at Subway in Ada, Minnesota at 4 a.m.,” Peters added.

Today, all sugar beet processing in the United States is owned by growers, a marriage of convenience and necessity.

“The crop is of little value without a processor to extract the sugar, and once a sugar factory is built, a business must have a reliable supply of beets,” states the American Sugarbeet Growers Association. “There has always been a closer and more cooperative relationship between growers and companies than with other agronomic products.”

The three Minnesota sugar beet cooperatives were formed in the 1970s, when California still dominated sugar beet production, according to USDA figures. But by the end of that decade, Minnesota doubled its sugar beet production. And in the late 1980s, Minnesota began its reign as the sugar beet capital.

The region’s seven sugar beet processing plants have thrived on an atypical agricultural advantage over California and other growing regions.

“Because they are largely water, sugar beets are mostly stored outdoors and freeze on cold winter days,” Peters wrote. “By freezing the sugar beets, it preserves the sugar and allows for the longest processing campaign in the world.”

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Read more curious stories from Minnesota:

Why don’t farms water their crops at night?

Why are Honeycrisp apples still so expensive?

Why doesn’t the governor of Minnesota pardon the ceremonial turkey?

How is food scraps recycled in Minnesota – and how good are we?

Was Minnesota once home to US government-sponsored hemp farms?

Does Minnesota or another state have the better right to Paul Bunyan?

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