From Seed to Sugar: A Vertically-Integrated Model for Small-Scale Turbinado Sugar Production from Organic GMO-Free Beets
Our project is an experimental vertical integration model that aims to assess small-scale sugar manufacture in the Northeast. It is comprised of three phases: cropping, process development, and market research. In 2011 adverse early spring conditions damaged beet cropping prospects so severely that decided to try the entire project again in 2012. This year we had an acceptable crop of beets and so are proceeding with the processing and accompanying work. In terms of the time and effort involved, our project is more than 50 % complete and results are encouraging thus far.
In April of 2012 we planted three varieties of non-GMO sugar beet and one variety of non-GMO fodder beet in three-row blocks on one acre. A portion of the field had inadequate germination due to heavy rains and inadequate drainage (a reprisal of the conditions that did such damage to our seedbed in 2011). About 40% of the field (the better-drained portion) had full germination. We measured projected yield from sample sections where germination was adequate, and derived the below yield data for the four varieties. These are within a normal range for sugar beets. It should be noted that heavy soils with marginal drainage may not be safely planted to sugar beets at the normal time, in early spring. In such conditions, planting could be delayed somewhat but this would have an adverse effect on total yield. Or, plant sugar beets exclusively in well drained areas with lighter soils. On our farm we have very limited acreage of this description. This limits somewhat the prospects for future sugar beet cropping for our particular farm, and may do so as well for other farms with soils that are heavy and poorly-drained.
At harvest in November 2012, we brought in an estimated 8 tons of beets between the four varieties from around a half acre. As originally proposed, we have stored the crop in a “clamp” made of hay bales, wood chips, and straw. We are now preparing to begin the sugarmaking process around December 17th, 2012.
Farmer Erik Andrus has continued in the role of project manager. Evan Dale, farm worker for 2012, logged many hours planting and maintaining the beet field. After the retirement of Allen Matthews, our technical adviser, Ginger Nickerson has stepped in to fill that role. Going forward, Judd Markowski, a small-scale maple syrup maker, will be working with us in the sugar production phase. Additionally, filmmaker Ken French has documented the key steps of the project thus far on video (planting by hand, weeding with a draft horse and cultivator, harvesting by hand, and storing in a clamp).
Over the course of the project, two new avenues of end-use have presented themselves. A local start-up distillery has contracted to purchase beet juice from the project to assess viability of a locally-derived spirit product. Additionally, we have been contacted by horse owners interested in purchasing non-GMO beet pulp, a specialty product that is currently only available in the U.S. as a European import at considerable cost–around $1 per lb or more. Retail of beet pulp by-products of sugarmaking could be a significant source of revenue for farmers cropping and processing sugar beets.
GAP Outreach Coordinator
UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture
106 High Point Center, Suite 300
Colchester, VT 05446
Office Phone: 8026565490