Sugar beets in a field.Sugar Beets

Minnesota produces more sugar beets than any other state in the country, and North Dakota ranks second. Rich soils of the Red River Valley are the base for this crop's $2.3 billion economic impact on the region. Seven farmer-owned processing plants in the two states turn beets into refined white and brown sugars. The harvest begins in early September and the first loads go directly to processing. An inventory of raw material builds — mountains of beets — and is processed during the winter. When spring temperatures arrive the facilities shut down, as it is impractical to keep any remaining beets cool. The grower cooperatives attempt to match nationwide demand with processing capacity.

Beets originally contained about two percent sugar, but sugar beet varieties were bred to maximize their sweetness. Minnesota beets now average 17-18 percent sugar. The process for extracting sugar was developed in Germany in 1747, and a research effort to increase sugar content was underwritten by Napoleon I in the early 1800s. He feared that France's sugar supply from Caribbean cane fields would be blockaded by the British, in their continued dispute with the new America and the impending War of 1812. By the 1890s the use of beets for sugar spread across Europe and reached this country.

Sugar beet research with weather exclosures.

Weather exclosures enable investigators to study the effects of moisture, temperature, and wind on weed control.

A 34-year joint research effort of the University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University, whose scientists work closely with the Sugar Beet Research and Education Board of Minnesota and North Dakota, has helped improve performance through:

  • Weed control and management
  • Understanding and controlling pathogens
  • Variety performance
  • Stand populations
  • Planting dates
  • Soils
  • Insect control
Continue on to Potatoes