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Cultivating sugar beets
Cultivating sugar beets

Sugar Beet Culture

Great care was necessary in the preparation of the sugar beet seed bed. Plowing, harrowing, rolling, tilling, and leveling the soil precede planting which was accomplished by drilling seed balls or segmented seeds into two rows in the month of May. As the plants emerged from the soil, they had to be weeded, bunched, blocked, ditched and irrigated. Beet rows needed to be thinned or blocked so that there would be only one plant for every twelve inches per row; then hoed two or three times per season to keep the weeds down and the ground loose. The blocking, thinning and hoeing was done by wage or contract laborers. The thinning process alone required five to six workers per acre, working on their hands and knees (Coen, 1926, p.31).

Beets were harvested by lifting or pulling (piling) the beet plant from the ground by hand or with a "lifter". Each beet plant was lifted out of the ground, one in each hand, slapped against each other to remove residual dirt and thrown into piles. In the piles, each beet was picked and the top was cut off just above the sun line with a large knife and loaded onto wagons that were then hauled to beet loading stations or factories near the fields. Harvesting began in early September and ran through late November.

In 1923, the average total operating cost for producing sugar beets, including man labor, horse cost, seed and manure expense was $77.57 per acre (Pingrey, 1924, p.25).
Unloading beets at the factory
Unloading beets at the factory


Sugar beets have a shelf life of approximately one hundred and twenty days before loss of sugar content is affected. Thus, during sugar beet harvesting, round the clock processing was required for maximum output. Beet storage (silving) involved covering the beets with dirt, then straw to minimize the effects of open-air exposure to the elements of climate and environment. In the early years, sugar beets were shoveled at dump-sites onto trestle-like structures called 'highline dumps", which facilitated the transfer of beets from wagon to railroad cars. These structures were often twenty to thirty feet high and were dangerous for draft animals. They were later replaced with "wheel-type" dumps and by 1925 by hydraulic dumps on motorized trucks (Shwrayder, 1987, p. 20). The factories operated from the time the first beets were harvested until their supply was exhausted, usually around the first of February.

Numerous processes were involved at the factory to refine sugar from the raw beet. First, at the factory or dump-site, the beets were weighed and tested for sugar content. The first weigh stations were called "tare houses" (20). Then, the beets were washed, cut into thin strips and soaked in hot water to extract sugar into juice. The juice was purified by applying lime and gas from limestone in a lime kiln, pressed or filtered and boiled down into a heavy syrup in large evaporators. Syrup was then boiled in "vacuum pans" until sugar crystals were formed by whirling the syrup against a screen by means of centrifugal force. The force filtered out the syrup and held back the pure white sugar which was then removed and dried by warm air and packed into bags (Loveland Museum Collection, 1998).
Great Western Sugar Company
Great Western Sugar Company


Associated with the beet sugar industry was the coal mining industry which provided fuel for the power and steam in the beet sugar factories and the limestone quarries which produced coke to make gas. Limestone was obtained from limestone quarries at Horse Creek Quarry near Cheyenne, Wyoming. The cotton industry furnished the cotton for sugar bags; the cattle and sheep industries provided manure to restore the soil and the factories in turn recycled beet by-products as beet pulp and molasses to feed the cattle and sheep (Ibid).

The contributions the beet sugar industry made to the state of Colorado were numerous and included increased land values, population and urban growth, a stimulated and more diversified agricultural culture that provided for increased crop yields for sugar beets as well as other crops and employment opportunities, increased incomes and a more stable economic foundation for the state of Colorado (Hafen, 1948, p. 141). Sugar beet by-products had considerable feed value for sheep and cattle. The beet industry maintained the irrigation system of the Valley and stimulated its banks and schools. It promoted scientific research and associated industries. Prior to beet growing in northern Colorado, there was no row crop that could be successfully grown as a cultivated crop except potatoes in limited areas.

The beet sugar industry also promoted labor considerations. Compared to other major crops grown in northeastern Colorado, beets required by far the greatest amount of work and the largest number of workers (Coen, 1926, p. 33).

By 1955, Colorado produced over 1,000,000 acres of sugar beets and over 1,800,000 tons of beets or 373,000 tons of refined sugar, approximately 60% produced in Weld County, making this county the top sugar producer in Colorado and the second top sugar producer in the nation (Shwrayder, 1987, p. 17).

Great Western Sugar Company ad in Public Service window
Great Western Sugar Company ad
Sugar beet special, c.1925
Sugar beet special, c.1925

Between 1951 and 1957, however, the "industrial period" was emerging in the South Platte River Valley. Agriculture began seeing many changes brought about by droughts and war; by further advancement in agricultural technology and the introduction of more and improved methods and varieties of crops (Walker, 1999, p. 23) and increased farm mechanization which initiated a new era in the cultural history of northern Colorado.


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