Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/May 1889/Growth of the Beet-Sugar Industry


By A. H. ALMY.

THE statistics collected from the sugar-producing countries show that more than one half of the world's sugar is derived from the beet-root; and it is known that the consumers of sugar in the United States often make daily use of it in their households without suspecting that they are contributing to the support of the peasantry and wage-earners of continental Europe.

Whenever the history of the beet-sugar industry shall have been written, it will prove interesting and instructive to the student, as an achievement of science, and will present a problem to the political economist of grave import in its reflection on the future business possibilities. It is a matter of historical record that for many years, in the early part of the present century, continental Europe worked almost hopelessly to produce a sugar-yielding plant which would thrive in its northern climate and supply the sugar it consumed.

Chemistry had demonstrated that the beet-root—as well as other forms of plant-life—contained a solution of sugar identical with that found in the cane-plant of the tropics; but the amount of sugar extracted was so inconsiderable as to preclude the hope of obtaining a supply from that source, unless new discoveries should make it possible to increase the saccharine product.

Schools of instruction were established for imparting special information in the cultivation of the beet and the extraction of the saccharine principle. And costly experiments and researches were made.

Scientific men were rewarded, subsidies were granted, and factories were built, but sugar was produced only at extravagant cost; and, as a financial venture, without other considerations, it proved a stupendous failure. The industry was abandoned in France with the fall of Napoleon, but was continued in a moderate way by some of the continental states without a profitable result, until about twenty years ago, when the possible war complications of that period—which afterward culminated in the humiliation of France—forced Germany to rehabilitate her agricultural industries, from which the armies of the empire were chiefly supplied. Her lands were worn under a thousand years of tillage without rotation of crops, and had more recently become unprofitable and valueless under the vain attempt to produce the staple crops of grain in competition with the rich prairies of our Northwest, and her farmers were emigrating to America. The soil was not exhausted, as many have supposed, but, like our own farms in New England, laboring at present under the same difficulties, required a diversity of culture and new fertilization. Their previous experiments had shown that the beet-root, depending largely for its growth upon the atmosphere, did not exhaust the soil, as was the case in the cultivation of grain, but, in rotation with the staple crops, like wheat, barley, and rye, it left the land richer for the following crop. Besides, the beet-root was peculiarly a product of the temperate zone—indigenous to the latitude of northern France and Germany, requiring fair skies, sunlight, and long seasons, for the full perfection of its growth for sugar-making purposes. It could not be raised profitably for saccharine extraction on the sea-coast, as it easily absorbed saline matters, or in the dark and damp places of England, or in the higher latitudes, where the season is too short to ripen the plant to perfection, any more than it would thrive in the hot climate of the South.

A new system of excise duties was established which induced the farmer to enter into the growing of beets on a larger scale, and bounties were given to attract capital into the construction of factories for the manufacture of beet-sugar. This excise tax, not unlike that of our own internal revenue collection on whisky and tobacco—where the consumer pays the tax—was equal to two and a half cents per pound on the sugar extracted from the beet. To the sugar exporter the tax was returned, and there was also paid a bonus which assumed the character of an export bounty.

Under these conditions an enormous increase of sugar production and a rapidly augmented exportation of sugar followed. The farmer commenced a new system of fertilization that produced larger crops, and began with energy to develop from the soil the nitrogen which the chemists had found to be so much needed in the cultivation of the beet-root. He made more manure on the farm by feeding his cattle with the pulp, received from the factories that had sprung up like magic a residuum derived from the chemical processes in the extraction of sugar containing all the salts and elements remaining, thus giving a new impulse to cattle-raising and dairy products from its rich fodder.

Gathering from twenty to twenty-five tons of beets from an acre, each ton yielding from one hundred and fifty to two hundred pounds of sugar, which gave him three times the profit that he had hitherto derived from the cultivation of wheat, rye, barley, and the staple crops, leaving the land better prepared to receive the annual plant in its rotation with the beet, he found the value of his farm increasing enormously, and his prosperity phenomenal, as the swarms of peasants—men, women, and children—flocked to his growing fields or followed the harvesting, while full employment was given to the general wage-earner and the artisan.

New employments and collateral industries increased in the same ratio; railroads were projected and built to transport the beet-root from the interior farms to the great factories scattered for hundreds of miles throughout Germany, long trains of platform-cars, often numbering fifty to sixty, piled full of white sugar-beets, met the eye of the traveler during the harvesting season, and speculation ran high with the fabulous profits of the sugar manufacturers.

Subsequently the attempt to manufacture beet-sugar in the Southern United States met with signal failure. Later, beet-sugar factories were started in the Northern States, in the latitude of Germany, where the soil and meteorological conditions were equal to the best of beet-growing sections on the Continent; to which was added the long Indian summer, which can not be approached by any country in its advantages for maturing the plant. To these factories, erected in different sections of the North, subsidies were granted and bounties were given by several of the States in which they were located, fostered and assisted by the Agricultural Bureau and experimental stations of the Government; yet they were overcome by the same difficulties that had for fifty years and more confronted their foreign pioneers, and they, one and all, came to grief in their attempts to manufacture sugar from the beet-root at a profit, for the metamorphosis of the plant and the sugar-beet process had not yet been developed.

But during the last decade great discoveries have been made in the cultivation of the root, as well as in the methods for the extraction of the solution of sugar by ingenious mechanical devices, and the sugar-beet of to-day bears no resemblance to that of the past century, either in its form or the minerals it contains; and the saccharine principle has been increased a thousand per cent above the extraction of one per cent secured by the early experiments of Archaud in the days of the first Napoleon. Forty years afterward the chemists found their experimentation had increased the product to six per cent only, and a quarter of a century later the highest attainable result proved that it required twelve and a half parts of beet-root to produce one part of grain sugar, about one eighth per cent of the whole, which was the basis on which the German excise duty was established; yet last year the statistical organ of the German Empire reports an average extraction of thirteen per cent. The employment of an ingenious contrivance known as the "diffusion battery"—though simple in its conception, nevertheless illustrates well-known laws of chemical science in the transfusion of liquids, and successfully opens the membranous walls of the sugar-cells of the plant, giving a higher grade of juice, with less gummy, nitrogenous, and fibrous impurities, at less cost than by the old methods of mechanical pressure—has in no small degree contributed to this result. It had taken three quarters of a century to develop the chemistry and the mechanical adjustment of the sugar-beet processes, and even now we notice that the progress in this direction is great.

Meantime France, Belgium, Austria-Hungary, Poland, Russia, and other countries in continental Europe, after a series of unsuccessful attempts, resumed the manufacture of beet-sugar, and by a system of subsidies, bounties, and drawbacks, notwithstanding the many climatic and meteorological difficulties, produced a large quantity of sugar, but little as compared with Germany, as is shown by the following table, estimating the production of beet-sugar in the year 1885:

German Empire 1,155,000 tons.
France 308,000 "
Belgium 88,000 "
Austria-Hungary 558,000 "
Russia and Poland 387,000 "
Holland and other countries 50,000 "
2,546,000 "

The entire production of cane-sugar in Cuba, Java, Brazil, Peru, British India, Egypt, Manila, Louisiana, and other cane-sugar producing countries, during the same period, did not exceed 2,260,100 tons, or less than one half of the world's sugar production.

The simple and inexpensive methods adopted in the German factories have made the beet-sugar manufacture one of the most profitable of industries, and the work goes on day and night, at a prime cost for conversion of two dollars per ton of beets, or one cent per pound of sugar, not estimating the cost of the beet-root, but including labor and all materials used, like coal, coke, lime, charcoal, wear and tear, and interest on the invested capital. The monthly disbursements of such an establishment exceed sixty thousand dollars, and give employment to thousands of wage-earners in direct and collateral industries. One sugar corporation in France reported a net profit derived from the manufacture of beet-sugar a few years ago of two millions of dollars, and the season did not extend beyond one hundred and twenty days. Under these new conditions the production of beet-sugar in continental Europe has doubled in the last decade; and, after the home populations are supplied, the surplus is exported to Great Britain and the United States, reducing the price of sugar in the markets of the world more than fifty per cent.

The sugar-refineries of this country use the beet-and cane-sugar indiscriminately in the manufacture of the block sugar of commerce, and the family grocer sells the imported refined beet-sugar at a price from twenty-five to fifty per cent above the price of cane-sugar.

Before our late war, Louisiana produced more sugar than Germany; and although the beet-sugar industry in the latter country was greatly stimulated by the high prices of sugar prevailing, incident to the entire destruction of the cane-sugar industry of the United States, yet as late as 1875 the empire produced only twenty-five hundred tons, while for the year 1888 a production of one million three hundred thousand tons of sugar and saccharine resultants is recorded.

If the increasing production of continental sugar continues in the same ratio as in the past, it needs no prophet to foretell the future of the cane-sugar colonies. Even now the English market can not afford to take colonial cane-sugar, although it is admitted free of duty. The English refining factories, which represent an investment of fifteen or twenty millions of dollars, and have hitherto supported a large population of wage-earners, are being closed, from the competition with continental sugar.

These questions are attracting the attention of all the governments of Europe; and while a number of members of the British Parliament tried to find compensation for the losses of the cane-sugar colonies, and the destruction of the British sugar-refineries, in the circumstance that the consumers of sugar in Great Britain saved fifty-five millions of dollars annually, in the reduced cost of an article of prime necessity of which the consumption had increased thirty-three per cent within a few years; yet an international congress was determined upon, for the purpose of doing away, if possible, with all bounties on sugar manufacture.

This grave question was presented, in all its bearings, to the Parliaments, Finance Ministers, Boards of Trade, and Chambers of Commerce of many of the Continental Governments, but at the gathering in London the proposition met with little or no favor.

After the adjournment of the congress the German Empire announced a new excise duty, which took effect last August, involving all the principles of the old duties, and increased the "material and consumption" tax on beets to three cents per pound on sugar as against two and a half cents per pound previously, and fixed the export bounty at two cents and two and a half cents per pound on raw and refined sugar respectively.

During the past year large capital has been attracted toward the development of the sugar-beet industry in the United States on the Pacific coast. Although that section of the country, with its peculiar surroundings, does not generally present the meteorological and climatic conditions necessary to secure the best results in the cultivation of the beet-root for sugar-making purposes, yet a factory was started last October, with equipment and machinery capable of reducing three hundred and fifty tons of beets per diem, and has proved a great financial success. A full supply of beets, cultivated by the wheat-growers of California, kept the works fully employed, and a boom was given to the town of Watson ville. The factory consumes seven tons of lime daily in the chemical processes of extracting the sugar, which is distributed pro rata to the grower of beets free, and can be returned to the soil. Besides, the farmers averaged over eighty dollars per acre for their beet products, while the recent report of the Agricultural Bureau estimates the returns from the total production of the five principal crops—oats, corn, rye, barley, and wheat—in the United States to be less than twelve dollars per acre as an average.

The beet-root, deriving its fertilization from previous crops of annuals, can not rotate effectually with the cereals, except in the third season; and of course the comparative estimate of increased profit over wheat is not as large as it would be if the plant admitted of continuous culture, and thus may be misleading.

When we take into consideration the elements—organic and mineral—of which all plants are composed, and that each variety requires for its perfect development certain meteorological conditions, peculiar characters of soil, and combinations of the various leading constituents of plant-food, which have enlisted the energies of scientists for years in continued investigation, we are struck with admiration and wonder at the progress of agricultural chemistry—not only in revealing the chemicals as they exist, replacing them in the soil when exhausted by cultivation, but in transforming a root and making almost a new creation, by extracting the noxious minerals which had retarded its development, with simply special culture.

It is admitted that the new appliances of steam and electricity and the inventions of the past quarter of a century have changed the commerce of civilization, but, as economic factors, these can scarcely prove more far-reaching in their influence than those discoveries of science, in the same period, which have made it possible to open a new industry in a northern latitude for the manufacture of an article of prime necessity, whose habitat has been for a century in the tropics.

The chemists have found that the four principal elements which enter into plant-life are met every day, only under other names and slightly different forms. Nitrogen in one form is the ammonia of commerce. Potash is simply lye from wood-ashes. Phosphoric acid is ground bones dissolved in acid; and lime is seen everywhere. These represent the necessary nutrition of the beet-root when the climatic conditions are favorable; but if they exist in insoluble combination, they will be useless in the economy of nutrition, or if in form suitable for similation, but excessive in quantities, they will stimulate the plant to abnormal growth, unsuited to its desired perfection.

The scientists have shown us how to cultivate the beet for sugar making; that soils charged with mineral salts are injurious to its development for that purpose; that, in fact, the beet easily absorbs saline matters, while the alkaline salts constitute one of the greatest obstacles to sugar extraction. They say new ground, or that lately cleared of forest, should not be applied to the culture of the beet, but the land used for this purpose should have been under continued cultivation at least ten or fifteen years for the removal of the nitrates and the organic matter containing nitrogen, which are always present in new soils, and exert an injurious influence on the quality of the root.

We now have elaborate tables of analyses of soils to show the chemical composition of those most favorable to the culture, as well as to the physical character which render them best suited to the cultivation of the beet, their porosity and subsoil conditions.

Unless the supply of the elements of plant-food is continuous and regular, a purely sandy soil would be undesirable. If no means are provided for the removal of surplus water which may be found in a purely clay soil, or to so improve its condition as to admit of free circulation of air as well as water, it will be too heavy, and become absolutely useless. The same is true of purely calcareous soil, since the same unfavorable conditions would prevail, though perhaps to not quite the same extent. Such soils would also be unsuited to the plant itself, because they would not admit of the free progress of the tap-root nor of the lateral fibrous roots in their search for nutrition. These conditions have a powerful influence upon the ultimate yield of sugar from the surface cultivated.

But if the sandy soil be mixed with either or both of the others, and with humus—pulverulent brown earth—in suitable proportions, the conditions most favorable to the maintenance of a regular and plentiful supply of food, the healthy condition of the root and its consequent normal development will be assured.

The beet-root, as a biennial plant, enters readily into rotation with annual plants, and with those plants known to exhaust the soil. It precedes barley, wheat, rye, and oats, and prepares the soil in a marvelous manner for cereals, the subsequent fertilization of which prepares the soil for the beet. The land must not receive fertilizing treatment during the season of the growth of the beet-root, but must be well prepared—not too light, not too moist; it should be warm, rich in humus, deep and free from stones, like a garden. The form of the beet desired for greater sugar extraction would, with this physical condition, be long and tapering.

In this collection of data, derived from the best authorities in Europe, where the cultivation of the beet is best managed, it will not be possible to speak of the meteorological conditions necessary to the perfect growth of the root for sugar-producing purposes, except to say that the principal conditions to be studied in this connection are those of the temperature and moisture with which the plant may be surrounded. The amount of moisture at the disposition of the plant, at all seasons of its growth, is the most important factor in its normal development. Temperature has an influence: if it be too low or too high, it has the same power of evil as a deficiency of moisture. Various sections of the United States north of Mason and Dixon's line, where the rainfall is regular, like New England, with its long Indian summer, present all the conditions to produce the sugar-beet to perfection.

The cultivation of the root, and the latest approved processes for extracting the sugar, will be considered hereafter.