|Gazillions of sugar beets|
|Another loaded truck down a dusty road|
The process is simple: A farmer drives a lifter which pinches up beets that are fed into a delivery machine. Meanwhile, drivers steer alongside the tractor, collecting beets as they are dumped into the truck bed. Lifter dude gives hand signals (at night, they are light signals) to Driver dude - speed up or slow down - to fill up the truck bed. When full, Farmer waves goodbye to Driver who then leaves the field, headed toward the nearest 'piler', where all the beets make up tremendous beet mountains.
|Kelly works the lifter, giving signals|
A piler is a massive cement spot on the prairie with mobile machines that accept and weigh a truck's beet cargo, returning rejects and extraneous topsoil back to the truck bed, where it is dumped back onto the field it just came from. From the piler, the beets are carted off to the nearest sugar processing plant as soon as possible. This part of the world is "beet country" with 5 American Crystal Sugar processing plants in North Dakota and Minnesota. (Founded in 1890, American Crystal is farmer-owned, becoming a co-operative in 1973.)
|Beet mountains at Hamilton piler|
|Beet pipes, pre-season, piled up near Minto.|
"Sugar Love (a not so sweet story)", the author, Rich Cohen, notes that sugars were first introduced into processed foods in the 1970s. Then, we are presented with a disturbing graph showing a spike in diabetic diagnoses about the same time.
I just checked with the National Diabetes Foundation and as of 2011, 8.3% of the U.S. population is diabetic. Furthermore, they estimate that healthcare costs for diabetic Americans reached $245 billion, up 41% over a five-year period. War on Drugs? Meh. We've got much bigger problems.
"In 1973, 2% of the population, 4.2 million Americans were diabetic. In 2010, it is 7% of the population, 21.1 million Americans. Almost all the cases in this epidemic spike are type 2 diabetes, once called adult-onset diabetes."
|Truck receiving beets from Lifter while moving|
|Loaded trucks in line at piler|
Which again makes me wonder how much our government - you know, the paralyzed, ineffectual one? - subsidizes crops that keep adding to our national health problem. Here's a brief explanation of subsidies from the Forbes' 2008 article, "Sugar's Sweet Deal":
Sugar subsidies in the United States work through a complex system of loans and quotas. Sugar processors take out loans from the government; then, after the harvest, they face one of two scenarios. If they’ve been able to sell their sugar for more than the cost of the loan, they pay off the loan and pocket the profit. If their crop is worth less than the loan, they can keep the money and just give the government their sugar.With one-third of Americans officially obese, we are the unhealthiest industrialized nation on earth. No, I am not blaming the sugar beet and certainly not the amazing efficiency of large-scale farming, but I do question the spendy health damages of Cheap and Fast processed food. Government and large bio-tech companies who enable this market do not - I repeat, DO NOT - have our best interests at heart.
The loans are made to processors, but in order to qualify, they agree to make payments to the producers at a predetermined rate. The system guarantees the sugar industry a minimum price for sugar.
Communication by radio
In order to prevent the subsidies from causing oversupply, however, the Department of Agriculture maintains marketing allotments, preventing producers from growing too much. A strict quota system also limits the amount of sugar that can be imported into the country.
As for the farmers, they are doing what farmers have always done, grow crops that are in national and global demand. When I see these large-scale industrial harvest productions, I know full well that the average farmer is not thinking about the end result, the point where the crop meets the consumer. They are too busy watching the weather, the daily crop reports, global market prices, soil moisture and, my god, when they are going to have time to fix the header???
Brent, for example, is famous for not opening his mail until winter and getting haircuts only when his cap no longer fits. These people work HARD and would give you the shirt off their back anytime. I admire these farmers and feel sympathy as they are caught up in the same hyper-industrial system that makes their combines - currently costing $300-500K brand new - now run on complicated hard drives instead of just grease. Farming requires serious capital and involves massive unforeseen risks; it is not for the spineless or the weak.
The fact is, this too-much-sugar problem is our issue (meaning consumers) to deal with, not farmers. The only vote that counts in this country is the Almighty Dollar and farmers are going to grow, harvest and sell whatever pays their bills and keeps them working the land. Period. Right now, it is sugar beets (among other crop rotations) and I see no end to that in my lifetime.
Supply and demand always wins. What kind of products you buy, conversations with your grocer and the companies you support with your purchase - that's where we affect change. Looking upon those mountains of sugar beets, I saw Oreos, canned fruit, soda, pudding cups, Twinkies, muffins, granola/protein bars, spaghetti sauce, salad dressings, cereals (pre-packaged oatmeal - the worst!), juices, candy and condiments.
Of course, the body needs a certain amount of sugar for energy, and to carry out basic functions, but we've gone way beyond that point. Our liver takes all those extra Oreos and converts them into fatty acids which takes up residence on our padded bellies and major organs. High sugar levels in our bloodstream also set off hormonal responses, such as insulin spikes, that confuse our bodies, increase appetite, slow down fat burning, and encourage even more fat storage. So as we discuss the rising costs of healthcare, keep in mind we're really shooting ourselves in the foot with this sugar habit of ours.
|Sugar beet trucks, working 24/7|
To see more of my photos from the Sugar Beet Harvest, go here.