Al­berta Su­gar Beet Grow­ers show us how it’s done

Prairie Post (East Edition) - - Farm News - BY HEATHER CAMERON

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.

Photos by Heather Cameron

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.

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