Alberta Sugar Beet Growers show us how it’s done
On October 23, Alberta Sugar Beet Growers (ASBG) hosted a Harvest Tour.
The Harvest Tour began with a visit to a sugar beet crop belonging to Vucervich Farms, which is just east of Coaldale.
Co-owner Gary Vucervich, who runs the farm with a brother, first explained the process behind growing the sugar beets.
“The beets are planted about six inches apart approximately,” Vucervich said. “Planting is a very important process of sugar beet production. We want to see in place accurate spacing between each plant and the depth because the number of plants we have to harvest in the field is extremely important. Quality is also very important; plant population is also very important, as it has an influence on quality.”
Vucervich said that his farm digs, plants, and maintains about 300 acres of sugar beets and it ends up taking at least two weeks to harvest, sometimes harvesting 20 to 25 acres a day.
“We've been growing plexi-tolerant sugar beet for about nine years, and it's been a huge benefit for us as farmers not only in terms of weed control, but it's also eliminating the lot of the work associated with sugar beets,” Vucervich said.
Vucervich emphasized that sugar beets are rotated on the family farm once every four years because the plants and soil are susceptible to a disease called Sugar Beet Cyst Nematode and planting sugar beets too often would create opportunity for the disease to sprout. They rotate the crop with wheat and corn, but they don't include canola because canola is considered a weed to sugar beet crops.
“Canola is also a host for the Sugar Beet Cyst Nematode, so we can't grow canola in the same field that we grow sugar beets,” Vucervich said.
To control weeds, Vucervich Farms mindfully uses measures that have evolved over time to be less harmful to the crop.
“As chemical weed control came forward, we were able to eliminate the labor, but the chemicals that were used to spray the sugar beets were actually quite harmful for the crop and didn't really do a good job of controlling the weeds,” Vucervich said. “So what we would do at that time is spray the herbicide in a band overtop of the plant rows. It would involve between four and six passes with different mixes of herbicides to control the weeds and we would get reasonable, but not great weed control.”
Vucervich said that his farms did the best they could with chemical weed control and that involved two to three passes through the field, which was another timeconsuming, labor intensive process that burned a lot of fuel.
“Now, we have glyphosate tolerant sugar beet and it has really reduced the impact on fuel use and labour,” Vucervich said. “We can spray the sugar beet crops with a broadcast sprayer and we can typically get away with between two and four applications. Weed control is now typically excellent and it's been a game changer for Alberta farmers. Farmers are not dousing their crops with glyphosate. It is very well managed and it's used very strategically.”
Vucervich says that his family has been farming sugar beets for nearly 80 years and the story began with his grandfather, who immigrated here from Europe in the 1920's and started growing sugar beets in 1939.
“Initially, they grew sugar beets in Raymond and there was a small sugar factory there back in the day.” Vucervich said. “My grandfather immigrated from Europe and bought the farm in the Lethbridge area in 1947 and we've been growing sugar beets here ever since then. Sugar beets have been a good cash crop for us over the years and it's kept our farm diversified.”
During the tour of the sugar beet field, attendees got to view harvesting of sugar beet crops, see sugar beets that had been prepared for harvesting, and also taste a sample of a harvested sugar beet.
Once the sugar beets are all harvested, growers deliver them to one of the beet receiving stations in Southern Alberta, which are located in Vauxhall, Enchant, Picture Butte, Coaldale, Tempest, Burdett, and Taber and receive beets according to where the crop is located. The trucks will unload the beets and piling equipment will stack the beets until they are needed at the processing center.
After visiting the field, the Harvest Tour proceeded to drive by the Coaldale Beet receiving Station and attendees were able to observe trucks delivering harvested sugar beets.
Shot-sized samples of Double Double, an ASBG version of Bailey's liquor, were also given out to participants en route to Lantic Sugar Factory in Taber.
Upon arriving at Lantic Sugar Factory, the tour was greeted by Operations Manager, Andrew S. LlewelynJones, and given a briefing on the factory's history and operations.
“The factory was built and started operations in 1950,” Llewelyn-Jones said. “The factory normally tries to slice around 6,000 tons per day and we produce anywhere from 900 to just over 1,000 tons of sugar a day. Two-thirds go into these silos all we hear of that sugar production on a daily basis and one-third goes out to the big juice tanks and then we process that juice and starting at the end of April early May until we're done.”
Following Llewelyn-Jones's comments, the tour was divided into groups and led on tours of the Lantic Factory by various guides so everyone could get a firsthand look at the entire process behind breaking down the sugar beets into different sugars, syrups, molasses, and waste.
“The sugar business is a good business to be in,” Llewelyn-Jones said. “It's a lot of employment for people living anywhere around Lethbridge. We also provide temporary employment during harvest.”
Once the tour was complete, ASBG distributed shot samples of Brum were given out to the participants en route back to Lethbridge. Brum is made by Righand Distillery, which is located in Leduc, Alberta and is made of 40% liquor with spiced and white variations available for purchase in stores.
“It's pretty amazing to see how the sugar beets end up as sugar,” said Melody Garner-Skiba, Executive Director of the Canadian Sugar Beet Producers Association. “There's a lot of pride among farmers in growing sugar beets.”
Sugar beets being harvested into a truck.
Arnie Bergen-Henengouwen, President of ASBG, holds up a sugar beet that is ready to undergo the harvesting process.
Sugar beets are being dropped off at the Coaldale Beet Receiving Station.