Sugar beet root in ground, cultivated crop in the field

Did you know that sugar is one of the world’s oldest documented commodities? While the first indications of sugar cane’s domestication were around 8,000 BCE, extracting real sugar from beets is a more recent discovery.

The Big Discovery

The modern sugar beet’s roots are buried deep in history, politics and geography. In 1747, three decades before the American colonies declared their independence, German chemist Andreas Marggraf discovered that sugar beet roots contained sucrose, the same sugar as that of sugar cane.

Marggraf’s apprentice, Franz Karl Achard, began selectively breeding sugar beets in 1784. In 1801, he opened the world’s first sugar beet factory in what is now Poland. The sugar content of those first factory beets was 6%, compared to modern beets’ 15% to 20% sucrose.

Sugar Beets Take Root

During the Napoleonic Wars 35 years later, the English blockade of continental Europe cut off cane sugar supplies from the West Indies. This prompted the development of beet sugar’s commercial viability. By 1850, the sugar beet industry was well established in Europe.

Sugar beets made their way to New England in 1836 but failed to take root. In the middle of the 19th century an attempt was made to cultivate sugar beets in Utah but that was not successful either.

The Modern Beet Sugar Industry

It wasn’t until 1870 that the first successful sugar beet factory was built in the United States in Alvarado, California. It was then that the industry took off. By 1914, the United States rivaled Europe in sugar beet production. Three years later, there were more than 90 sugar beet factories operating in 18 states.

World War II had a geographical impact on American sugar beet production. When Japanese American and immigrant sugar beet farmers from California, Utah and Nebraska were interned in North Dakota, Idaho and Montana, they brought their crop and their knowledge with them, according to a 1999 article in the Pacific Northwest Quarterly written by Louis Fiset.

As of 2017, there were 20 operating sugar beet factories in nine states processing 35 million tons of sugar beets grown on more than 1 million acres. Today, sugar beets are grown in 52 countries. More than 4.5 million tons of sugar are produced each year in the U.S. from sugar beets, which represents more than 54% of domestic sugar production in the U.S.

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