This project began in 2011 to develop a vertically-integrated model by which non-gmo field beets could be grown and processed into value-added products in the context of a small, diversified farm. Background research suggested that sugar and ethanol could be produced in quantity from modest acreage. A pilot project aimed to develop a model vertically-integrated system, beginning with beet seeds and ending with sugar, in order to assess opportunities and challenges. Quality sugar did not result from the work, but our methods were documented in order to further future efforts.
This project set out to develop a vertically integrated model of high-energy organic non-gmo field beet production and value-added processing, and to assess marketing opportunities for resulting products. Three areas of work were anticipated: cropping/agronomy, process development, and market research. Each area of work was necessarily dependent upon successful completion of the previous one. In 2011, we failed to complete the cropping/agronomy trials due to heavy spring rains destroying the seedbed. In 2012 we succeeded in completing cropping/agronomy trials and worked on process development. This work failed to produce sugar products of marketable quality, and therefore the third area of work could not be undertaken. Our experience with this project and its many issues has led to the development of a broad perspective on small-scale beet cropping, processing, and problems and opportunities associated with this crop as they may apply to small farms in the Northeast. Considering the difficulties we encountered in processing, we did not feel that we had reason to produce the sugar-production handbook we originally set out to write. However the project did document the overall trajectory of the project and most key process steps through a short video produced by Ken French.
Relatively little is known about the properties and growing practices associated with field beets in the Northeast, particularly non-gmo varieties. We aimed to cultivate a selection of beets in a typical small farm setting to evaluate their potential and to note any issues associated with their production. We expected considerable carry-over from other row crops but some differences as well. In total we set out to produce about 20 tons across all tested varieties.
After having produced a crystal sugar that we are ready to take to the public, we aimed to perform market research at area farmers’ markets. We planned to sample our sugar to passers-by both in granular form and in a basic sugar cookie. Participants were to evaluate the sugar in terms of the appeal of visual properties, texture, and taste, and will be asked to what quantity they would like to buy were it available, and what dollar value they would pay for such a quantity. We aimed to collect 200 surveys.
We aimed to process each variety of beets separately, using a large centrifugal vegetable/fruit juicer, a 60-quart steam kettle, and a 60-quart hobart mixer. We proposed to use a juicer to draw the juice off the beet pulp, a commercial kettle is used to concentrate the sugary juice into syrup through boiling. Our equipment and process choices changed slightly as the project progressed and problems arose. At the outset, we proposed to develop a method that would involve a minimum of expenditure on specialized equipment and was expected to be no more technically difficult than the making of maple syrup. This method was originally arrived at through consultation with experts in the fields of sugar and ethanol production. We set 1000 lbs of sugar as a target for our pilot production project.
The first phase of our work was to obtain seed for and then crop and evaluate some non-gmo varieties of sugar beets. Despite difficulty obtaining non-gmo varieties, we were able to obtain four varieties, including three sugar beet strains and one fodder beet strain. Fodder beets are cousins of sugar beets, rarely grown in the U.S. and have somewhat lower sugar content by weight but larger size and greater ease of harvest. In 2011 nearly all of our seedbed was drowned in heavy spring rains. By the time acceptable planting conditions recurred, the season was so far advanced as to greatly limit yield. Therefore the project was extended an additional year. Though heavy rains did recur somewhat in 2012, an acceptable performance of all 4 non-gmo varieties was observed. The crops were carried through to storage and processing.
In 2012, our trial plot took place on one acre of Vergennes B soils with gently sloping terrain. Initially we had planned to spread the trial over two soil types but after 2011 we lost access to the plot with lighter soils as that was rented land. Greg Roth at Penn State advised that the Vergennes B soils should be adequate to support beet production. The soils in this plot tested for optimum to high levels of Phosphorus, Potassium and Magnesium in 2011 and 5 tons of beef manure to the acre were recommended per our crop plan, which was spread the fall of 2011 prior to the commencement of the trial in 2012.
In April 2012, we laid out a trial of four varieties of field beets (all beta vulgaris): A Scottish Fodder Beet sent to us by a farmer there, a non-GMO sugar beet sold as a deer bait crop by the company MonsterBuck, “Giant Half-Sugar” beets sold by R.H. Shumways, and an experimental non-GMO sugarbeet shared with us by the company Betaseed USA. All in all obtaining verifiable non-GMO varieties was very challenging. In terms of reliable, affordable access Shumways stands out and has actually increased its offerings of seed since the beginning of this project. The field was roughly 120′ x 350′ and had three rows of one variety at 3′ row spacing followed by 3 rows of the next variety, with the sequence repeating every 12 rows. The field was plowed in the fall and harrowed in the spring and worked down to a fine seedbed. The rows were laid out with strings and planted with an earthway push seeder.
Following planting on April 10th the weather trended cold and wet which hurt the emergence of beets on the lower, soggier portion of the field but not the upper part. Where beets succesfully emerged in the more poorly driained portion they still exhibited poor growth and size, especially in areas where water pooled during heavy rains. Thinning was accomplished with hand hoes, and weeding with a horse-drawn cultivator, hoes, and a walking rototiller. By July the beets were very well established and they continued to grow new leaves and larger roots until November. We delayed harvest until mid-november to maximize sugar content as this is a recommended practice. We harvested the beets by loosening the roots with a “beet lifter,” a sort of walking plow that has an offset sole that helps loosen soil around the roots and makes them easier to pull by hand. A middlebreaker plow would accomplish much the same effect. After loosening we removed tops in the field and carted the beets to the farmyard. Without mechanization hand harvesting beets is a fairly big job. We estimated our progress to be about one ton harvested per laborer per day. In our experience, with Mangels this rate can go up to about two tons, fodder beets about 1.5 tons, and with true sugar beets it is 1 ton at best. Often, even after the beet lifter is used, stubborn beets need to be loosened with a fork which greatly slows harvest.
Our data from this trial follows in a table. We were pleased to see that the varieties performed within an acceptable range and had high sugar content. We measured the sugar content by extracting the juice and using a the balling scale on a hydrometer.
After harvest the beets were stored in a “clamp,” which is a low-cost root storage solution consisting of a shallow pit covered with straw, wood chips, or other insulative material. The beets are piled in a heap within the clamp and are well covered. In December 2012 we dug up the beets one variety at a time in order to begin processing. A few beets were damaged by freezing and thawing but further into the pile the vast majority had held quality well.
Our processing system was set up based on conversations with distillers and other experimenters who had worked with beets for sugar on a small to moderate scale. Our setup included a washing step involving soaking batches of beets in 55-gallon drums full of water (which had to be changed intermittently) , followed scrubbing and rinsing in a large restaurant-type sink with a sprayer. Following washing the beets were chopped into very large pieces and run through a commercial juicer (a Breville Juice Fountain Elite, 1000 watts) which separates the beet juice from the pulp. This method, essentially a centrifuge method, was recommended by my sister Alexis Andrus who was working as a lab tech at the dairy science division at Cornell, who consulted with a senior chemist colleaugue on my behalf about scale-appropriate sucrose-extraction methods. The initial results were encouraging. The juice could be produced at a rate of about one gallon per minute with a crew of two at task. Furthermore, the resulting juice tested very high in sucrose, over 20% in some cases. But although beet juice is very sweet but we also noted it to contain a powerful off-flavor with a strong lingering aftertaste, which can be best described as over-ripe swiss chard. The aftertaste had a chemical-like burn quality to it. This wasn’t anticipated.
Nevertheless, we carried this juice through the process of boiling and crystallization. At this point our sugarmaking approach resembles the making of sugar from maple sap, with a shallow pan and a heat source. In our case we used a commercial restaurant stove and shallow “hotel pans” as boiling pans. This was intended as a simple boiling system to refine our approach, with the possibility of moving the operation to a true outdoor maple syrup arch when we were ready. We boiled the beet juice solution and continued boiling to concentrate the solution. Being already very sugary it did not take very long. Once the boiling point reached 260 degrees F we began the cooling phase, adding a handful of table sugar to each pan and stirring once the solution reached about 250 degrees F in order to obtain large crystals. We did achieve crystallization but the crystals never came out very large. Also, the flavor became more concentrated as the syrup became more condensed. Once the crystallized mass was cooled the appearance and consistency was much like roofing tar, with many crystals of various sizes ranging from 1/16″ to 1/8″ embedded in the mass. We removed the sugary mass from the hotel pans put them through the centrifugal juicer and in so doing rid them of some of the off-flavors in the molasses, but even so the crystals were too small and the molasses content too high, rendering the finished product bad-tasting. If we had been able to obtain very large sugar crystals the molasses effect might have been less, but after several attempts we were not able to achieve this and began to reevaluate our approach.
During processing we noted that the fodder beet variety had less pronounced off-flavors than the other three sugar beet varieties. However sugar crystals made with the above method from the fodder beet were still unacceptable. We processed approximately 3 tons of beets yielding about 400 gallons of beet juice and about one ton of damp beet pulp before giving up completely on this approach.
During processing we had noted that the fodder beet variety had less pronounced off-flavors than the other three sugar beet varieties. However sugar crystals made with the above method from the fodder beet were still unacceptable.
In light of discouraging results with the juicer, we changed strategy decided to experiment with a diffusion method, which involves drawing off the sugar in the beets by steeping in hot water, rather than by centrifuge. We used a 60 quart hobart kettle and filled it with large beet slices, sliced to about 3/4″ to 1/2″ thick. We filled the kettle with slices and added hot water, then brought the entire kettle to a boil and then removed heat. After the kettle cooled we strained the now syrup-like liquid off the slices. This liquid tested at about 10% balling scale. We were very pleased that this method resulted in a nearly clear syrup with only mild beet flavor. However when we boiled this syrup down it became noticable that the syrup was laden with what we presume is pectin, making the solution slimy and difficult to work with and also apparently resistant to crystallization, like a jelly. The off flavors were also still present with this method though not nearly as pronounced as in previous batches. Consultation with the UVM Chemistry Department and to our technical advisor Ginger Nickerson at the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture did not provide a solution to the problems encountered in our process. Having encountered several barriers to producing the 1000 lbs of sugar we originally set out to make, we decided to conclude processing after this single trial of the steeping method.
Our processing efforts did produce some turbinado crystal sugar. However the presence of strong off-flavors indicated we were still very far from having a product that would appeal to the public, even a committed buy-local public. We had also produced beet molasses as a by-product but the off flavors were even stronger in the molasses. In addition our production method was also very slow, and it appeared that more impurities were being carried through into the beet syrup than is ideal, to general detriment to the process. Therefore we elected to draw our own conclusions as to the marketability of the products in lieu of attending markets and collecting surveys.
Our field trials of three non-gmo sugar beet varieties and one non-gmo fodder beet were largely successful, indicating that these crops are suitable for production on small farms throughout the region. The difficulties we encountered with value-added processing notwithstanding, these crops may have value as a fodder source for cattle, sheep, pigs or even poultry. We have demonstrated a method of cropping, harvesting, and storing that may translate well to a variety of settings. The cost of sugar beet seed per acre is also lower than corn, and sugar beets can play a useful role in rotations especially in that their taproots help break up subsoil. Although our farm did not succeed in realizing value added income from the beet cropping trials, the feeding of about 8 tons of beets and by-products to pigs and cattle provided a very energy-dense feed source in the middle of winter at comparable cost to putting up hay. The energy density of beets and beet pulp is of particular value to gestating or lactating livestock with high fluid and energy needs.
No economic impacts were realized from value added process development or market research. Although these avenues appeared promising from initial research the chemical issues in our sugar-making process stood in the way of producing a useful sweetener in the small-farm setting.
As indicated in the initial proposal, sugar beets are of interest not just as a fodder source or as a stock for making crystal sugar, but for alcohol and ethanol production as well. This project spurred many conversations with entrepreneurs in the nascent micro-distilling industry. The density of sugar produced per acre remains compelling for distillers and may ultimately open a reliable market for farmers within the region to produce stock for distilling. However given the cheapness of producing corn ethanol, or even for a distiller to produce neutral grain spirits on the national market in lieu of distilling his or her own from local feedstock, there is little incentive for distillers to invest in improved sugar beet processing capabilities. One such trial was arranged with Duncan Halliday in St. Johnsbury, VT, who encountered issues with impurities in the distilling process similar to those we had encountered while trying to make sugar. These issues are likely soluble, but will require additional time and effort.
Another area of potential value worthy of exploration is that of non-GMO beet pulp as a specialty horse feed. Since all domestic beet production is GMO, horse owners who wish to feed beet pulp as a feed or feed supplement but do not wish to feed GMO stock to their animals must buy an imported (U.K.) product at considerable expense–up to $15 per pound. While not enough to support beet cropping entirely, potential revenue from selling dried beet pulp could prove economically significant for farmers. There are issues of handling, drying, and bagging pulp that would need to be addressed.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
We did not produce the seed-to-sugar handbook originally described in the proposal. However we did attend the NOFA summer conference in August 2013 and gave a workshop summarizing the experience of the project. Additionally we have posted the “Seed to Sugar” video online for general viewing.
Farmers considering the addition of a productive fodder root crop should consider sugar beets and fodder beets. Fodder beets in particular, though very difficult to obtain as seed, have great advantages as a feedstock due to high fiber content and are easier to harvest and handle than sugar beets.
As for value-added processing of beets, though it is theoretically possible to do this in a non-scientific/industrial setting we had a hard time obtaining good results and would discourage farmers from investing energy in making sugar or ethanol from beets on a small scale.
At our farm we will likely not consider future processing of beets. I maintain a strong interest in farm produced sweeteners and in experimental distilling, but as a result of this work I am diverting my interest more to beekeeping and to distilling with corn and rye. However I may grow beets again as a feedstock for pigs. If the beet field is fenced there is the additional benefit in that the pigs can do all the harvesting themselves, saving the farmer the trouble.
It is disappointing that the results of the project were hampered from problems pertaining to chemistry, for which the answer exists somewhere, but I could not find it in a timely fashion. I believe when circumstances force us to relocalize our economies that we will find a way to figure out how to process beets somehow, much as France did during the Napoleonic wars, when the British blockade cut off sugar imports from tropical colonies. But we encountered several difficulties in reinventing a processing chain that’s farm-sized. For the time being, in this country, sugar will likely remain an aspect of huge-scale agroindustrial production that we all take for granted.