Sugarbeet History

The sugarbeet is from the same species that includes swiss chard, fodderbeets and red beets. The crop has an interesting history associated with war, sacrifice, and undoubtedly, romance.

The first modern sugarbeets originated as selections made in the middle of the 18th century from fodderbeets grown in then German Silesia, but food and medicinal uses are much older. A precursor is known to have been used as food as early as ancient Egypt. In 1747 a German chemist, Andreas Marggraf, demonstrated that the crystals formed after a crude extraction from pulverized beet roots were identical in all properties with sugarcane crystals, and attempts to derive sugar from beets originate from his work. His student, Karl Achard, developed processing methods for sugar extraction from the beet, and made the first selections of higher sugar type beets. The blockade of shipments of cane sugar to Europe by the British during the Napoleonic wars stimulated a more intensive search for sweeter beets, a plant breeding program and the construction of many crude factories in France and elsewhere to produce sugar from the sugarbeet. After Waterloo and the lifting of the British blockade, the sugarbeet industry in France declined but the modern sugarbeet had been created and the ability to extract sugar from the beet had been demonstrated. The first successful commercial factory in the USA was constructed by E. H. Dyer at Alvarado, California in 1879. Soon after sugarbeet culture and factories expanded in many states. By 1917 there were 91 factories operating in 18 states. In 2023 there are 20 highly efficient operating sugarbeet factories in 9 states processing over 30 million tons of sugarbeets grown on approximately 1.1 million acres. Approximately 5 million tons of sugar are produced each year in the U.S. from sugarbeets and beet sugar represents 54 percent of domestic sugar production in the U.S.

Beet sugar production worldwide often is vertically integrated. Companies that process sugar from the beet root have considerable influence over all aspects of production from the area planted through the sale of the final product. The crop is of little value without a processor to extract the sugar, and once a sugar factory is constructed, a company must have a reliable supply of beets. There has always been a closer and more cooperative relationship among growers and companies than is found with other agronomic commodities. In the United States, growers began joining together as farmer owned cooperatives in the mid 1970’s to purchase their processing companies and by September 2006 the entire U.S. beet sugar processing industry became grower owned.

In both Europe and the United States, sugarbeet variety improvement and seed production are carried out primarily by private companies. The USDA developed most of the varieties grown in the first half of the 20th century in the United States and current variety development often uses genetic lines derived from them.