SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb. – Drive just about any road in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming and you’ll see them – the ubiquitous leaves, stretching toward the sun as a center-pivot irrigation system swings leisurely overhead.
For more than a century, the view has been pretty much the same, with the exception of the irrigation method – it says sugarbeets are grown here.
And every fall, without fail, diggers move through those same fields pulling the beets and loading them into massive trucks for transport to the processing plants in Scottsbluff and Torrington, Wyo. There, the large, oblong beets disappear into one end of a factory and sugar emerges from the other end. But what happens in between?
That’s the primary question answered Tuesday, Dec. 4, as the Western Sugar Company plant in Scottsbluff opened its doors to the public. Partnered with the Scottsbluff Gering United Chamber of Commerce, Western hosted its annual Sugar Tour this week.
The tours have been going on for about 12 years, said company agronomist Michael Relka. The tours help fund Chamber scholarships for students pursuing careers in agriculture-related fields.
“This is something we partner on,” Relka said. “And it lets the community see what we do.”
The afternoon started with educational videos detailing sugar production in the Platte River Valley, starting about 1903. The first sugar production factory was built in Scottsbluff in 1910 and it’s grown from there.
In 2002, the Western Cooperative was born, with growers receiving shares in the organization based on the number of acres they produced. Even in that relatively short time, there have been massive changes to the way sugarbeets are grown and processed.
For example, today there are about 30 different varieties of sugarbeet seed available to growers, with about a third so-called “specialty” seed, featuring different disease resistance built in, Relka said.
“One of the biggest industry changes is in the seed,” she said, noting one of the latest developments is herbicide-resistant varieties. That means producers can grow sugarbeets with fewer chemicals and fewer passes through the fields.
“That’s a huge advantage for the growers,” Relka said. “It’s more sustainable, (allowing for) no-till or reduced tillage.”
Another major change in recent years is expansion of automation and machination, both in the field and at the plant in Scottsbluff. It’s allowed the growers and the processing plant to become more efficient.
“With modern equipment today, (producers) can harvest in one day what used to take 30 days,” according to the narration of one of the educational films shown.
Little goes to waste in the sugar-making process, said Tracy Bentley, process manager for Western Sugar in Scottsbluff. In addition to traditional white table sugar, the Scottsbluff factory produces brown sugar, molasses and a host of different byproducts used for everything from chicken and cattle feed to anti-ice treatments for roads.
In total, by the time the last bit rolls out of the plant, all but about 5 percent of the beet leaves as waste, Bentley said. It takes about nine hours, on average, to convert beets to packaged sugar for more than 30 labels – including the company’s own GW Sugar.
It was the first time seeing the sugaring process for Pam Joern, who works in the business office at the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff. The bulk of her work involves purchasing for the center’s research farm, including sugarbeet seed and related expenses.
“It’s neat to see (the rest of) the various processes,” Joern said. “Plus, I live just down the road, so I’ve always been curious.
“It’s neat to see the factory aspect, and the research aspect,” she said. “To see how the sugarbeet is processed and distributed to