Sugar Beets: One of Alberta’s most unique agricultural industries
By Trevor Bacque 24 June 2019 2 min read
Gary Vucurevich and his family on their sugar beet farm (Alberta Sugar Beet Growers).
Made in Alberta success stories are not rare. In fact, they are quite common. The entrepreneurial spirit of the West has made this province one-of-a-kind in so many ways, especially agriculture. One of these exclusive stories is the sugar beet. More than 200 families in southern Alberta earn their livelihoods by producing sugar beets that are later 100 per cent processed in Taber and sold in provincial groceries stores.
For Alberta, stories like these are the norm.
Turn up the beet
In 1950, the Taber sugar plant was built by the Rogers Company. It underwent a massive, $50 million expansion in 1999 to upgrade its capacity and every year the facility produces about 120,000 metric tonnes (MT) of sugar. All sugar beets in Alberta are grown on contract to Lantic Inc, which merged with the Rogers Company to form Lantic Inc. in 2008.
Demand has been as high as 45,000 seeded acres of sugar beets in the late 1990s, but has settled down and currently averages 24,000 seeded acres over the last five years, making it a consistent and stable facet of Alberta agriculture. In 2018, the sugar beet production contract was set at 28,000 acres. Over the last five years, sugar beets yield an average of 717,827 MT, including an all-time high of 876,000 MT in 2017. On a per acre basis, beets yield 28.84 MT during the same period. Annually, direct farm cash receipts for sugar beets average $38 million.
What is a sugar beet?
Preferred in rich, deep soil, all of Alberta’s sugar beets are grown under irrigation and thrive in the heat, ideal for the humble, low-lying plant that is as versatile as it is sweet. Uses for sugar beet do not end with sugar, they start there. The plant produces granulated and liquid sugar (pure sucrose) as well as specialty sugar, such as icing sugar, in addition to molasses. Contrary to what you may think, there is no material difference between cane sugar and sugar beets. Both produce pure sucrose, except that cane sugar is extracted from its stalk while beet sugar is extracted from its roots.
The entirety of the plant is utilized, as well. The beet leaves remain in the field and go back into the ground to naturally create a rich soil while the beet pulp is eventually pelletized and sold into southern Alberta’s adjoining feedlot alley.