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Tough root holds sweet promise

Nov./Dec. 2008 California Country magazine

The simple and amazing sugar beet, whose tough roots hold sweet promise for celebrations year-round.



Ed Hale's family has grown sugar beets in the Imperial Valley for three generations. The gnarly roots, which can weigh up to 10 pounds each, represent a historic yet vanishing crop in California.
Ed Hale's family has grown sugar beets in the Imperial Valley for three generations. The gnarly roots, which can weigh up to 10 pounds each, represent a historic yet vanishing crop in California.

What has white, gnarly roots, can weigh as much as 10 pounds, is harvested from fields like mounds of ugly boulders—and once processed and refined becomes a culinary delight?

It's the simple and amazing sugar beet, whose tough roots hold sweet promise for celebrations year-round. Whether granulated, cubed or brown, it's sugar—straight from California farms.

A longtime powerhouse crop, sugar beets have been grown in California for more than 140 years. And, agricultural experts say that in the crop's early days, farmers and food processors developed efficient production systems for sugar beets that served as a model for delivering other crops needed to feed a growing state.

But where did this coarse cousin of Swiss chard and the table beet come from? Food historians say the first modern sugar beets originated as selections made from beets grown in Germany for livestock feed.

The story goes that in 1747 a German chemist, Andreas Marggraf, found that the crystals formed after a crude extraction from pulverized beet roots turned into sugar. The crystals were just like those from sugar cane, a highly prized, but expensive, sweetener. The discovery sparked a food revolution.

Sugar beets grown today put out an impressive canopy of leaves that spread over several feet. The cover shields the root as it gathers energy from the sun and grows underground, condensing its sweetening properties.

Although sugar beets have been grown throughout California for decades, these days the lush crop is found primarily in the Imperial Valley, a desert growing region tucked in the southeast corner of the state. The area is home to generations of sugar beet farmers.

"Growing sugar beets is about more than the business of farming," said Ed Hale, whose family has grown sugar beets in the Imperial Valley for more than half a century. "It's about those early mornings when you're in the fields and the sun is coming up.

"It's about the dew sparkling on the leaves. It's a beautiful, green crop and the heft of the beets as they come out of the ground is still surprising, even after all these years."

From field to factory, Imperial Valley farmers harvest tons of sugar beets from lush fields in late spring.
From field to factory, Imperial Valley farmers harvest tons of sugar beets from lush fields in late spring.

Hale credits the valley heat—sometimes topping 120 degrees in the summer—for the crop's success in the Imperial Valley, which has held the world record for sugar beet production for decades. The beets are so big and sugar laden farmers joke that pulling one from the soil is like trying to tug a football from a gopher hole.

These days specialized harvest equipment helps farmers get the hefty roots out of the ground and on to the Spreckels Sugar processing factory in Brawley. The beets are topped and the leaves chopped and set aside. Heavy digging tractors churn the soil, lifting the beets, which are 85 percent water, into trailers for the short haul to the factory.

Then it's up the conveyors—plop, rumble, thud. Depending on the season, up to 9,000 tons of sugar beets are processed at the plant each day.

"There's pride in helping produce a product whose quality and purity is the best in the world," Hale said. "But, the people who do the refining and packaging, who handle the transportation, they play a big part, too."

Because sugar is widely available and relatively inexpensive, he said, consumers don't always realize the amount of time and hard work required to grow the crop and deliver the finished product. Its deep history in California is also overlooked.

The first economically successful sugar beet factory in the United States was built in 1879 at Alvarado, a village along the San Francisco Bay that no longer exists.

Spreckels Sugar is produced in the Imperial Valley at the state's only remaining sugar beet processing factory, but the company began contracting for beets with farmers in the Salinas Valley as early as 1896.

These days once the sugar is processed and refined, it's packed in a variety of quantities, from the familiar 5-pound sacks for home cooking to huge containers weighing hundreds of pounds for commercial production. Then it's shipped to customers throughout the West.

Raw beets are trucked to the nearby Spreckels Sugar plant in Brawley for processing--chopping, soaking in water and extracting the juice.
Raw beets are trucked to the nearby Spreckels Sugar plant in Brawley for processing--chopping, soaking in water and extracting the juice.

In addition to supplying food manufacturers like General Mills and Dreyer's Ice Cream, Spreckels Sugar helps put the sweet in world-famous Ghirardelli chocolate, founded in San Francisco in 1852.

Spreckels delivers more than 1,200 tons of sugar a year to the company's candy plant in San Leandro. And if a spoonful of sugar makes a bonbon better, Ghirardelli adds other ingredients from California farms to its impressive selection of confectionery treats—almonds, dairy products and raisins, for example.

Sugar for candy, ice cream and pies, however, isn't the only thing that comes from beets. Hale points out that dried beet pulp is used in livestock feed. Beet molasses, the portion of sugar that could not be crystallized into white sugar, also goes into animal feed and is used to make yeast for fermentation processes.

Imperial Valley sugar beet farmer Mark Osterkamp says that like households everywhere, there's plenty of granulated goodness in his house.

"My mother made cut-out cookies when I was a kid and we decorated them with icing. It's a happy memory and we continued the tradition with our own kids."

Osterkamp, who is president of Imperial County Farm Bureau, said, "Quality sugar comes from quality beets."

He believes part of the crop's long-term success is the research and development conducted by the University of California, which is responsible for some of the best beet varieties the world has ever seen.

But even with the support of leading plant researchers, outstanding farming practices and a deep, rich history, California sugar beet production is declining. The most acreage ever planted was back in 1969 when nearly 360,000 farm acres were devoted to sugar beets. This year only about 40,000 acres were planted.

"When I went to work for the California Beet Growers Association 30 years ago, sugar beets were a developmental crop," said Ben Goodwin, the association's manager. "There was plenty of open ground back then and sugar beets seemed ideal. They grow on saltier soils and we had more than enough water to support the crop.

"Now there are more profitable crops and that's where the water goes," he said. "This will be a tough year for sugar beets—the drought and economic concerns have taken some of the gloss off the business."

Today Imperial Valley farmers and the state's last operating sugar factory carry on the state's rich sugar-making tradition. But as production shrinks, farmers keep a close eye on international sugar markets and U.S. trade agreements, said Farm Bureau's Osterkamp.

The United States already imports sugar from abroad to meet consumer demand. Osterkamp said the slipping sugar production in California doesn't mean folks here at home will see higher prices for the household staple. A variety of factors will help keep consumer prices down, he reassures.

Still, there are some things he'll miss.

"The smell of sugar is there in the plants long before harvest," Osterkamp said. "You break the beet open when it's young and the sweet smell pops out like cotton candy."

Kate Campbell is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or kcampbell@cfbf.com.

History & Facts

A quick history of sugar
The process of pressing juice from sugar cane and creating granulated sugar similar to what is used today began in India about 500 B.C. Cultivation of sugar cane was introduced to Europe during the Middle Ages.

Later Christopher Columbus took the highly prized plant to the West Indies. The cane thrived in the moist, hot climate and processed sugars were shipped back to Europe where non-honey sweeteners were becoming popular.

The sugar beet is a relatively new sugar source. It's unique among the world's food plants in that it's a product of breeding research that has improved the plant's sugar content over centuries. The sugar beet is from the same species that includes Swiss chard and red beets.

Development of high-sugar beets was accelerated during the Napoleonic Wars, which lasted from 1799 to 1815. During the conflict, the British cut off sugar cane shipments to Europe from the West Indies. The resulting sugar shortage led to more sugar beet planting and more hastily built beet processing factories.

After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the British blockade on sugar cane was lifted and the sugar beet industry declined--but not before the modern sugar beet had been created and the process for extracting high-quality sugar from it had been proven.

How sugar is made

  • Today almost all commercially manufactured sugar—whether from beet or cane—is white granulated sugar, which has been refined in factories.
  • Cane sugar is generally labeled as such, while sugar from beets often isn't specified on the packaging. Many in the sugar industry say, however, that beet and cane are the same--both types are sucrose and chemically identical.
  • Brown sugar is made by retaining much of the molasses naturally in the plant during processing.
  • Cubed sugar is processed by molding granular sugar with a sugary liquid to help cement the crystals together.
  • To make beet sugar, the harvested beets are trucked to a factory, washed, sliced and soaked in hot water. This water, called juice, is cleaned and condensed in an evaporator to form syrup.
  • In the next step in the sugar-making process, even more water is boiled off and crystals begin to grow. The crystals are spun in centrifuges, sort of a spin-dry cycle, and the finished product is ready to pack and ship to consumers.
  • Liquid sugar is made from cane sugar.
  • Corn syrup is made from corn. It's used in processed foods and beverages. It doesn't crystallize as readily as sugar and usually costs less.

For information about sugar produced in California, go to www.spreckelssugar.com or www.chsugar.com.

Ghirardelli Chocolate: A rich tradition

Ghirardelli Chocolate Co., founded in San Francisco in 1852, has played an important role in developing the world's love of chocolate. And, in part, it has drawn on the quality and reliability of California farm products for its success.

Chocolate's origins date back more than 4,000 years, but Ghirardelli Chocolate Co. can trace its roots to founder Domico Ghirardelli, an apprentice candy maker in his native Italy, who came to California during the Gold Rush.

After prospecting around the Sonora area and failing to strike it rich, the young candy maker opened general stores in Stockton and San Francisco to supply those headed for the gold fields, including a good offering of candies, confections and South American chocolate.

By 1885, the company was importing 450,000 pounds of cocoa beans. Today chocolate is a multibillion-dollar global business and one of the world's most popular confections.

As the company has grown it has drawn on its location on the Pacific Rim and the strength of the state's farming sector. Ghirardelli chocolate products have always incorporated high-quality ingredients from local farms, as well as from throughout the world.

In addition to California farmers supplying all the sugar used by the company in its candies and confectionery manufacturing, all the almonds used in Ghirardelli chocolates are grown in California. Dairy ingredients come from local companies, raisins are sourced locally and many of the ingredients in products used for coffee flavorings and syrups also come from California farms.

Sweet treats for the holidays ... and beyond

Here are some sweet treats from California farm families who know a thing or two about sugar.

Christmas ornament cookies

Mary Osterkamp, wife of sugar beet farmer and Imperial County Farm Bureau President Mark Osterkamp, says making Christmas ornament cookies is a family tradition that stretches back generations.

3 3/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup butter or margarine
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla

Sift flour, baking powder and salt together; set aside. Beat butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla in a bowl until light and fluffy. Stir in sifted dry ingredients. Chill 2 hours. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Roll out small portions of chilled dough on a lightly flouered board to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut out ornament shapes (such as poinsettias, stars, hanging ornaments, horns, trees) with floured cookie cutters or by tracing with a sharp knife around a cardboard pattern you've made yourself.

Place on greased cookie sheets about 1 inch apart. Bake 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer to wire racks to cool. Decorate as desired with packaged frosting (tinted as you wish) along with dried fruit, gumdrops, chocolate drops, silver dragees or other decorations.

Painted cookies: After baking and cooling ornament cookies, brush Christmas design of trees, stars, holly and mistletoe with a small, damp brush and diluted food coloring.

Potato candy

Joan Osterkamp, mother of farmer Mark Osterkamp, offers a time-honored treat: potato candy.

3 lb. powdered sugar
1 lb. shredded coconut
1 cup hot mashed potatoes
2 tbsp. butter
1 tsp. vanilla
1/3 lb. bittersweet chocolate, melted

Combine powdered sugar, coconut, potatoes, butter and vanilla. Spread flat in a 13-by-9-inch glass pan. Top with melted chocolate. Let cool. Cut in pieces. Does not need refrigeration.

Spiced oatmeal cookies

Joan Osterkamp says kids love these nutritious cookies any time of year, but advises to plan ahead to make sure all ingredients are on hand. Don't worry about precise stirring, she says, adding, "Actually, these cookies taste best when thrown together with a lot of love."

1 cup shortening
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup molasses
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. cloves
1/2 tsp. allspice
2 cups oatmeal
1/4 cup sour milk
1 cup nuts
1 cup raisins

Cream shortening and sugars; add beaten eggs and molasses. Sift flour, soda, salt and spices; combine with oatmeal. Add to creamed mixture with milk. Stir in nuts and raisins. Mix and drop from a spoon onto greased cookie sheets. Bake about 15 minutes at 350 degrees.

Grandma Goodwin's famous fudge

This is a staple during the holidays at the Goodwin house. Ben Goodwin is the general manager of the California Beet Growers Association.

4 cups beet sugar (granulated sugar)
1 (13-oz.) can evaporated milk
3 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 cups chopped walnuts
10 oz. marshmallow crème
1 cup (1/2 lb.) margarine, softened
1 tsp. vanilla

Place sugar and evaporated milk in a large, heavy pan and bring to a full boil. Boil on medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring constantly. In a large bowl, stir together remaining ingredients. Add hot mixture to the bowl and stir until chocolate chips and margarine are completely melted. Pour into a buttered 9-by-13-inch pan and refrigerate until cool.

Streusel Crumb Crust Apple Pie

Ed Hale's family has grown sugar beets in California's Imperial Valley for three generations. He says this pie--a family favorite--is best served the same day it's baked and with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Pastry and filling:
Pastry for a single-crust pie
3/4 cup sugar
2 to 3 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
6 to 7 cups tart apple slices
1 1/2 tbsp. butter

Streusel crumb crust:
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans
2/3 cup granulated sugar or packed brown sugar, or a combination
5 tbsp. melted butter
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. salt

Make pastry for a single-crust pie and line a pie pan. (If making a deeper dish pie, allow more pastry and filling.) Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix together sugar, flour, cinnamon and nutmeg; stir in apple slices. Heap up filling in the pastry-lined pan. Dot with butter. Stir together ingredients for streusel crumb topping and sprinkle on top of the apple mixture in the pan. Spread evenly but do not pack down too firmly.

Bake at 400 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes to brown topping; reduce heat to 350 degrees and continue to bake until the fruit feels just tender and juice has begun to bubble through the topping (30 to 40 minutes more). Remove from oven and cool on a rack for several hours to thicken juices.


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