From Seed to Sugar: A Vertically-Integrated Model for Small-Scale Turbinado Sugar Production from Organic GMO-Free Beets

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2011: $10,681.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Erik Andrus
Boundbrook Farm

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Agronomic: sugarbeets


  • Crop Production: crop rotation
  • Education and Training: extension, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research, workshop
  • Energy: bioenergy and biofuels
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns, marketing management, feasibility study, market study, value added
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: soil analysis
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, new business opportunities, employment opportunities, social capital, sustainability measures

    Proposal summary:

    This project aims to develop a vertically-integrated model of high-energy organic gmo-free beet production and subsequent processing into sugar, and to assess the marketability of the resulting product. Building on the research of agronomist Greg Roth of Penn State, we will plant a one-acre trial plot of multiple varieties of sugar beets and high-sucrose fodder beets. Next, we will design a sugar production method suitable for modest on-farm sugar production, 10 tons of crystal sugar per year or less. Our aim for this project is to make 1000 lbs of high quality "turbinado," or semi-refined sugar. Finally we will conduct market research among farmers' market patrons to assess the appeal of the final product. Weighing our experiences with cropping, processing, and market research, we hope to be able to draw conclusions about the future of locally-produced beet-derived all-purpose sugar for northeastern markets. Our outreach plan will entail the production and distribution of a handbook, and presentation of our findings at several conferences and through publication in print media.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Per recommendations from agronomist Greg Roth of Penn State, Boundbrook Farm will execute a one-acre trial of three varieties of beets. Only non-GMO public-domain genetics will be used, and organic methods will be used throughout growth of the crop. Our principal aim will be to replicate the success of Roth's Pennsylvania trials of high-sugar varieties in a new setting, and then to take the resulting crop to develop processing techniques.

    In order to facilitate horse cultivation, the crops will be planted in 30” rows, in a randomized alternating-row pattern. We will plant half the crops in a gravel loam soil and half in a Vergennes Clay soil. Planting will be accomplished with a modified horsedrawn grain drill in late April or early May 2011. After emergence, the beets must be hand-thinned, and thoroughly horse-cultivated and hoed in-row three times during the growing season.

    From our single acre we hope to produce in the neighborhood of 20 tons of beets, of the three varieties. Advance research on processing suggests that this quantity will yield approximately two tons of crystal sugar. We will measure the sugar content with a brix refractometer as well as the yield of each variety.

    The beets are fully mature and ready for harvest in October or early November. They continue to sweeten in light frosts and should remain in the field as long as possible. At harvest the beets are pulled, topped, and carted to a “clamp,” or broad, shallow pit. Clamping is more economical than root cellaring when it comes to field beets, given the large tonnages and volumes involved on even a small acreage. Once piled in the clamp, the beets will be covered with straw, hay, or wood chips and leaves to protect them during the winter. Processing may begin at any point after harvest, and will conclude before April 2012, when the beets would begin to lose quality.

    We will process each variety of beets separately, on the farm, using a large centrifugal vegetable/fruit juicer, a 60-quart steam kettle, and a 60-quart hobart mixer. The juicer will be used to draw the juice off the beet pulp, and the kettle is used to concentrate the sugary juice into syrup through boiling. At the appropriate temperature, the heat is removed and the syrup stirred with the mixer to precipitate crystals. Finally the crystals are passed through the juicer to clean them of excess molasses. We propose to develop a method that will involve a minimum of expenditure on specialized equipment and will be no more technically difficult than the making of maple syrup.

    Professor Stephen Childs of the Cornell Maple extension is one of the Northeast's foremost authorities on sugar crystallization, and has agreed to provide support for the development of our crystallization process. While his work deals with maple sugar crystals, the sucrose found in the beet family is handled much the same way. The difference is that beet sucrose, being chemically simpler, is likely to be much easier to crystallize than maple sugar. We aim to produce at least 1000 lbs of quality crystal sugar in our trials. In an ideal process, 1000 lbs of sugar would require about five tons of beets with sugar levels in the upper teens. Since our one-acre crop should yield us 20 tons or so, we expect to have plenty of extra material to experiment with the three different varieties and with different processing methods.

    Once we have produced a crystal sugar that we are ready to take to the public, we will perform market research. Our research trials will take place at winter farmers markets in Hinesburg and Middlebury during the 2011-2012 winter farmers market season. Shoppers at winter farmers markets are especially committed to seeking out local foods throughout the year and therefore constitute the perfect target for market research. We will sample our sugar to passers-by both in granular form and in a basic sugar cookie. The cookie will use our sugar both as the sugar in the dough and also sprinkled on the top. Participants will 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 will collect 200 surveys.

    Finally, a handbook will be prepared, with three sections: agronomy, processing, and market research. The agronomy/cropping section of the handbook will contain guidelines for obtaining seeds as well as a review of field practices for the best-performing cultivars in our trials. We will cover all steps from planting to storage. The processing section will detail the methods we used to create a marketable product from the raw crop, with considerable cost-benefit analysis of the various options for each stage of processing. We will also draw some general conclusions about the implications of the project for the making of molasses, beet sugar syrup, or beet-derived grain alcohol on a small scale. The market research section will analyze the survey data we have collected and draw conclusions.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.