Popular Science Monthly/Volume 61/June 1902/Sugar and the Sugar Beet




THE total production of sugar in the world is between seven and eight million tons yearly; in 1898-99 it was 7,839,000 tons. Of this amount about three eighths is obtained from sugar cane and five eighths from beets.

The United States in 1898 consumed 2,017,444 tons of sugar, each ton being 2,240 pounds. This was an average of sixty-one pounds for every man, woman and child in the country. In 1897 the consumption was nearly sixty-four pounds per head, and this figure is approximately the average for the last ten years, the average for the preceding decade being ten or twelve pounds less.

The United States consumes much more sugar per head than is consumed in Europe. In 1895, when the consumption in the United States was 62.60 pounds per capita, the consumption in Europe was 25.64 pounds per capita. The consumption in nearly all the countries of Europe is very low, and the average would be very much lower if England were left out of account. In England it is far in advance even of that of the United States, being 86.09 pounds in 1894-95, when Denmark, which in Europe stands next to England, consumed 44.66 pounds, that is, only slightly more than half as much. The great consumption in England is largely due to the amount of jams and confectionery manufactured, much of which is exported. Germany exports large quantities of sugar to England and imports confectionery. This is due to the special bounty arrangements in Germany. The government does not bonus the production of sugar, but taxes it. It however gives a rebate on the sugar exported, in such a way as to constitute a bounty. An excise duty is placed upon beets used in the manufacture of sugar. On any sugar exported a drawback is allowed. The law passed in 1869 assumed that beets contain eight per cent, of sugar, so that the manufacturer would get as much drawback from the government if he exported eight tons of sugar as he had paid on one hundred tons of beets. But owing, on the one hand, to improved cultivation of the beet, and, on the other hand, to improved methods of extraction, instead of twelve and one half tons of beets being necessary for the production of one ton of sugar, less than eleven tons were required in 1877, and in 1898 only seven tons. Now, therefore, the German manufacturer obtains fourteen instead of eight tons of sugar from one hundred tons of beets, and if he exports the whole amount receives a drawback of fourteen dollars from the government for every eight dollars he has paid into the treasury; in other words, he has a bounty on six tons out of fourteen. This has so far encouraged the manufacture of sugar in Germany that it increased from 378,000 tons in 1878 to 1,755,000 in 1898, or over 400 per cent.

England exports so much of the sugar that is tabulated as consumed that it is probable that the average actually eaten by each person in the United States is greater than in any other country. Each person uses about $2.50 worth of sugar each year, making for the whole country approximately two hundred million dollars' worth. About half this amount of money is now sent to foreign countries for the sugar we import; for while we refine most of our sugar ourselves, we manufacture only an eighth of it.

Of the sugar consumed in the United States, three quarters is provided by the sugar cane, the remainder being manufactured from beets. There is little likelihood of much growth in the manufacture of domestic cane sugar, though at present there is more cane sugar made than beet sugar. In 1899, 160,400 tons of cane sugar were manufactured, as opposed to 79,368 tons of beet sugar. But the cane sugar industry is of long standing, while in 1888 the quantity of beet sugar manufactured was only a thousand tons.

Germany not only was the pioneer in the manufacture of beet sugar, but she has easily held the first place, except for a few years in the early part of last century when France took the lead. In 1747 Margraf showed in a paper, read before the Berlin Academy of Sciences, that he had been able by means of alcohol to extract 4.5 per cent, of sugar from red beet and 6.2 per cent, from white beet. The manufacture was not, however, begun on a commercial scale. Extraction by alcohol was expensive, and comparatively cheap sugar came in from the British colonies. It was not until 1799 that the first beet sugar factory was established by Achard, director of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences, and the beet sugar industry is therefore little more than a century old. Even by Achard's process, the cost of making beet sugar was greater than its value in the market; but in 1811 Napoleon blockaded the European ports and prevented the entrance of colonial sugar. This enormously raised the price of cane sugar, which cost in 1811 between one and two dollars a pound, though in 1805 five or six pounds could be bought for the same money. After Napoleon's downfall, the former state of affairs returned, but, in the meantime, the beet sugar industry had been stimulated and methods had been improved. In France political enmity towards England prevented the inroad of colonial sugar to the same extent as in the rest of Europe, and up till 1836, or thereabouts, France was the leading producer of beet sugar. Though Margraf had been able on a small scale by using alcohol to obtain from four to six per cent, of sugar, at first only two or three per cent, was extracted by the factory processes, but owing to improvements introduced in its manufacture as well as to the cultivation of beets with greater sugar content, five or six per cent, of sugar was obtained in the early thirties.

Schatten's invention of a saccharometer for estimating the amount of sugar in beets, and of several very important processes, revived the industry in Germany and placed that country in the van, which position it has held ever since. The growth of late years is shown by the fact that whereas in 1877-78 4,090,968 tons of beets passed through the factories, in 1898-99 the amount was 12,144,291 tons or 2.97 times as much. The amount of raw sugar produced in the same time increased from 378,009 tons to 1,710,000 tons or 4.52 times as much. It will be noticed that the increase in sugar produced is much more than the increase in beets treated. This is because of the greater amount of sugar extracted. Whereas in 1877, one ton of sugar required 10.82 tons of beets, in 1899 one ton of sugar required only 7.01 tons of beets. In other words, in 1899 three tons of sugar were made from the same weight of beets as in 1877 yielded but two tons.

Hardly had France and Germany succeeded in establishing the beet sugar industry before the United States made some experiments in the same direction. In 1840 a factory was located in Connecticut. It did not prove successful. Later other efforts were made, but with no better success. Among the causes of failure were careless methods of beet culture and very inadequate methods in the factory. It was even thought by many that simple apparatus, like that used in making maple sugar, was sufficient; moreover, the early factories were located in places that were not suitable. The first factory that had any appreciable success was at Alvarado in California. It was built in 1870; the company failed in 1876, but was reorganized in 1879, and the factory has been in operation ever since.

The Department of Agriculture under the federal government for a number of years carried on investigations and published reports and reviews, but its work was suspended in 1893. In 1897, however, it was resumed with renewed and increased vigor, and since then the government has taken great interest in the matter. It has distributed seed in a large number if not all the states and has sent out instructions to farmers who accepted seed for experiment. The Department of Chemistry has made analyses of thousands of samples of beets, and investigations have been made upon the influences of soil, temperature, rainfall and other conditions upon the growth of the beet, its sugar content and the purity of the sugar. In 1898 over twenty thousand pounds of seed were sent out to experiment stations for distribution. The value of the government's work is shown by the rapid strides with which the industry has advanced. In 1897 there were nine factories in operation in the United States, of which four were in California. In 1900 there were thirty-six, ten of them being in Michigan, which three years earlier had none. Germany has four hundred factories and turns out an average of between four thousand and four thousand five hundred tons of sugar for each factory. The average increase per annum in the consumption of sugar in the United States between 1881 and 1899 was over sixty thousand tons. In order to meet this increase alone, fifteen factories would need to be added each year. It is thus evident that though the industry has grown so markedly, the increase in consumption is not provided for. Nearly five hundred factories would be required for our present needs, and, after those were provided, ten or fifteen should be added each year to provide for growth, if the increase in consumption keeps up at the rate of the last twenty years.

As has been stated, one of the causes of the early failure of the beet sugar industry in this country was the location of factories in unsuitable places, and one of the most important features of the governments work of late years has been the investigation of the places where beets can be grown profitably. Beets should have a sugar content of at least 12 per cent, and perhaps even 13 per cent, or 14 per cent., otherwise it will not probably pay to erect a factory. This is not because at present prices a factory using beets of 12 per cent, sugar could not pay, but because in many parts of the country a considerably higher percentage is obtainable, and, in view of competition, the most favorable locations should be chosen. In the examination made by the Department of Agriculture of beets sent in during the year 1897, '98 and '99 from thirty-nine states and territories, it appeared that Arkansas was least suited for beet culture, giving an average of a little over seven per cent, of sugar. On the other hand, Nevada showed an average of eighteen per cent, of sugar in the samples examined.

A matter which is almost, if not quite, as important as the percentage of sugar is its purity and in this respect Nevada was almost at the top of the list, the 'coefficient of purity' being 83.8. The coefficient of purity means the percentage of sugar in the total solids dissolved in the juice. For example, if one hundred pounds of beets yield a juice containing fifteen pounds of solid matter dissolved in it, twelve pounds of which is sugar and the remaining three something else, the sugar content is said to be 12 per cent, with a coefficient of purity 80. Impurity keeps part of the sugar from crystallizing and so prevents its recovery in the factory and hence a high coefficient of purity is exceedingly important.

A very important factor in the cultivation of beets is the temperature. A large part of the United States has too high a temperature. Where the temperature is high beets grow luxuriantly, but they contain a small percentage of sugar. On the other hand, where frosts come early in the autumn, the beets can not arrive at maturity. Other things being equal, the farther north the beets can grow to maturity the greater will be the sugar content. In 1897 the Department of Agriculture gave as a provisional area a zone having a mean temperature between 69 °F. and 71 °F. for the months of June, July and August. This forms a strip across the country sometimes very narrow, sometimes quite wide—in New Mexico and California running south of the thirty-third parallel of latitude, in Dakota north of the forty-sixth, forming on the map a serpentine band which, owing to its many folds and twistings, has a length considerably greater than double the width of the continent. In addition to this belt there are a few outlying areas as for instance a portion of Washington. The belt begins on the east in the neighborhood of New York City, and on the Pacific it forms a long strip stretching between four and five hundred miles, almost due north and south, and extending to the Mexican boundary. Later investigation has widened this area a little, chiefly on the north, but has not very materially affected it. It must not be supposed that all parts of the belt are equally favorable. For instance, though North Dakota and southern California have the same average Temperature in June, July and August, in the former place frosts come very early and the winters are severe, while in the latter there is little frost at any season.

The rainfall is a matter of importance. Warm rains in the early part of the season and dry weather during the period of maturing are best. In arid districts, irrigation may be resorted to, and has the great advantage that the supply of moisture can be regulated. Irrigation works are usually expensive and do not ordinarily pay in the raising of cereals, but the sugar beet is a valuable crop and experiments already made point to the probability that Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and other similar states will become extensive producers of sugar beets. Ten million acres of arid land could be irrigated comparatively easily and that would more than supply the world with sugar.

The growth of the sugar industry in Michigan is very interesting. In northern Michigan lumbering has been carried on very extensively for a number of years. The result is that the timber areas have been rapidly denuded. The question as to the use to be made of the land from which timber was removed became pressing. The soil was considered too sandy for ordinary agricultural purposes but it turns out to be very suitable for beet culture and sawmills are being replaced by sugar factories.

The sugar is not the only valuable part of the beet. When the juice is extracted there is a pulpy residue from which the liquid is pressed out. This pulp is very valuable as food for stock. Some factories have dairies in connection with them. The experiments already made have been very satisfactory. The pulp is probably the cheapest food that can be used considering the amount of nutrition. The leaves are also valuable as food, but probably still more valuable as a fertilizer. Sugar takes nothing from the ground. It is made from the water vapor and carbon dioxide of the air. But the tissue of the beet contains considerable potash, magnesia, phosphoric acid and nitrogen, and all these are removed to a greater extent by the leaves than by the roots. If then the leaves are left on the ground or are plowed under, the soil is much less exhausted than if they are taken away. For beet-raising the cultivation of the soil must be very carefully attended to. This cultivation has a very beneficial effect on other crops grown in rotation with the beet, hence the advantages of beet-growing are indirect as well as direct.

The cost of raising beets is considerable, but, on the other hand, the returns are large, and the profits may be estimated as on the average twenty dollars an acre.