Saturday, October 12, 2013

Thoughts on Sugar

Gazillions of sugar beets
It's the annual sugar beet harvest this month and the roads are muddy and buzzing with truck loads. Recently, I was able to witness the 24/7 frenzy up close as I rode along with Wayne during a typical 12 hr. driver shift. Investigating big-scale farming realities is a hobby but really, it's an elaborate excuse to be around heavy machinery.

Another loaded truck down a dusty road
To harvest the beets before a hard frost, seasonal drivers generally work 12-hour shifts - either midnight to noon or vice-versa, over a 10-12-day period. Work stops for rain, frost and extreme heat only. Otherwise, the harvest runs 24 hrs. a day and there is an exciting madness about it all.

During beet harvest, the deep black of a North Dakota night is dotted with working combines and truck headlights, storming down the highway, resolute and united in their mission. The asphalt is covered in muddy tire tracks and the rumble of traffic anywhere near the piles is constant.

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 piles are heat-sensitive and will start to break down if the weather is too warm. (The colder North temperatures make the region ideal for beets.) To combat the risk of heat decay, empty pipes are inserted in the core of the enormous piles to keep them cool with circulated air. During Wayne's shift, we drove back and forth between the beet field, the Hamilton piler and the Midway piler, near Bathgate. At each spot, we took our turn in line, waiting to unload our sugar beets. 

Beet pipes, pre-season, piled up near Minto.
For an increasingly diabetic country like ours, sugar is big business. Whether its cane sugar, beet sugar or high fructose corn syrup (made cheap by government subsidies), a society that lives on processed food can hardly do without. The average American consumes 22.7 teaspoons of sugar every day. The American Heart Association's recommended daily limit is 9 tsp. for men and no more than 6 tsp. for women.

In National Geographic's recent cover story, "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.

"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."
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.

Truck receiving beets from Lifter while moving
Like anything, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, and so it is with sugar. Still, as I watched all the activity, I couldn't help but think, "Seems like an awful lot of trouble for a vegetable you can't really cook with." But again, this is the industrialized food system, food grown expressly for fuel, animal feed or processing, not for you and I to dice up and throw into a pot. 

Loaded trucks in line at piler
Moreover, the world demands the sugar beet as it is much easier to process than cane sugar.  Still, I think it worth noting that Ireland stopped growing sugar beets in 2006 once the government subsidies ended. (Russia is the world's main sugar beet producer, followed by France and the U.S.) The sugar beet is not like corn, potatoes or rice, it is not a nutritional staple found in kitchens around the world.

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.

Communication by radio
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.

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.
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.

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
My original goal here was to describe the magical sugar beet harvest only, not deliver a soapbox rant, but seeing the literal birth of sugar reminded me why I've come here. An enormous chasm of non-communication echoes between farmer and consumer and lately, that's where I find myself uncomfortably positioned. In these moments of personal division, I revisit the initial non-partisan thought that drives me forward on this project:

Everybody eats.


To see more of my photos from the Sugar Beet Harvest, go here


Lucky Katz said...


A well written and documented article. Mindfulness of how our modern food system works and that it doesn't just appear on the grocery store shelf would perhaps go far toward spanning that enormous chasm. I look forward to your next 'project' post and what challenges it presents.

Cathy Walp

Heather Clisby said...

Cathy, thank you so much for stopping in to read this. These experiences are so eye-opening for me and I'm happy to share. It was a treat for me and one of the reasons I've been spending my summers in NoDak. I certainly don't look at my food the same way anymore...

Hope you are having a wonderful Autumn!