By Pat Caldwell
NAMPA – The sugar that ends up on the shelves of many local grocery stores begins as a tiny seed that looks like a goat head in a field in Malheur County.
Sugar beets have been around since ancient Egypt and are now grown in a dozen states and account for more than half of American sugar production.
Sugar beets are crucial to Malheur County’s agriculture economy and almost all of them end up at the grower-owned Amalgamated Sugar Company plant across the border in Nampa.
At the Nampa plant, beets are refined into the sweet stuff using a blend of modern technology and techniques honed more than 100 years ago.
“Most of Amalgamated sugar is sold to commercial vendors. We are talking about the candy makers of the world, the bakers of the world, the beverage makers,” said Jessica McAnally, a company spokeswoman.
Amalgamated Sugar beets are grown across three states.
“We have 182,000 acres in Oregon, Idaho and Washington,” said McAnally.
A long and winding road
The route to the table for sugar beets begins in the spring when BB-sized seed is injected into a local field. The planting season begins in March or early April and the root vegetable is subject to the same intangibles as other crops. Mother Nature plays a pivotal role in the ultimate size of the beet and its sugar content.
In 2016, for example, local producers had a record season where sugar content in beets averaged 18 percent and overall tonnage was up. The 2017 season, though, delivered lower sugar content – at around 16 percent – and lower yields.
“I know the guys around here are anywhere from five to eight tons below (per acre) than last year,” said local beet farmer Mark Wettstein.
A summer heat wave hurt the beets, said Wettstein.
“And they were a little later getting planted because of the spring,” said Wettstein.
The local harvest typically kicks off in October. Farmers drive a machine called a defoliator into local beet fields. The defoliator cuts – or “crowns” – the top of the beet. Then a beet harvester enters the field and glides along the side of the beet rows and lifts them out of the soil.
“Then a paddle flips them up and the rower takes them up to the elevator and the elevator takes them to the truck bed,” said Wettstein.
The beets are then trucked to a central location where they are dumped into large piles.
“Once they are in the pile, and from now until the end of February, big semi-trucks haul the beets to the factory,” said Wettstein.
At the factory
When beets arrive at the factory they go from semi-truck into a flume where they are washed. The average weight of the beet when it arrives in Nampa is about 2½ pounds. The beets then go into the factory via a conveyor belt, are placed into a hopper and then sliced up into what are called cossettes, or long strips. In the hopper, the cossettes are pressed down onto blocks of objects that resemble knives and rotate in a constant loop. The process is similar to grating. This activity goes on around the clock.
The cossettes then move to a diffuser. There, they are mixed with large amounts of water to soak out the sugar. In the diffuser the cossettes soak for about an hour. The process – which takes about an hour - is much like when a tea bag is placed into a cup of hot water and the tea is leached out. At this point the sugar is a liquid.
“So it is a matter of separating out the tissue and getting it to flow freely in the water,” said McAnally.
After the beet slices are mixed in the diffuser two products are left: raw sugar juice and wet pulp. The wet pulp is moved out of the diffuser into presses where the water content is “smashed” out. From there the pulp is dried and turned into cattle feed.
The raw, chunky juice, though, moves through pipes down a different tract.
The juice, now a deep brown color, enters a purification process that includes a sequence of steps. Lime and CO2 are added to the juice and then it goes through clarifiers, carbonation filters, centrifuges, evaporators and juice softening tanks. The whole automated procedure takes several hours and is monitored by sugar factory employees.
“We try to take everything that is not sugar out of the juice,” said McAnally.
That includes, McAnally said, amino acids, salt and water.
Now the sugar is called “thin juice” which means the purification process has evaporated most of the impurities. The sugar here – a mixture of crystals and molasses - resembles syrup. The sugar is then separated from the beet molasses syrup in another centrifuge. From there the sugar is pushed into white pans, where it is crystalized. This is done by adding ground sugar to the pans so that all of the sugar crystals will be a uniform size. After that the sugar goes into another centrifuge where it spins, is washed with hot water to turn it to a white color and dried, weighed and put into storage.
From the time the beet is cut to going into a bag takes less than a day.
The refinery operates on several floors. Pipes crisscross the ceiling and poke up through the floors. Huge tanks that represent the refining process jut up several stories. The factory is loud – earplugs are mandatory – and it is a little city where the focus is to create sugar under the White Satin brand or other generic names.
Amalgamated employs 580 people with an annual payroll of $22 million. When production is going at full speed, the refinery produces 1,000 tons a sugar a day, said plant manager Eric Erickson.
Once in the warehouse, sugar – stored in bags from a pound up to 50 pounds – is shipped to major grocery chains across the region. All of Amalgamated’s sugar is sold on the domestic market.
The process to refine the sugar is both simple and complicated, said Erickson.
“There are so many factors involved, so many elements,” said Erickson.
For example, while the actual process could be done in a home kitchen, precision at the Nampa plant is critical.
“You want to make sure your equipment is operating smoothly at all times. We are really on a time crunch because we are dealing with a perishable vegetable,” said McAnally.
On the other hand, Erickson, said the basics of sugar beet production are simple.
“We are either heating something up or cooling it down,” said Erickson. “We are baking here. That is basically what we are doing.”
It takes a lot of beets to make sugar, Erickson said.
“2,000 pounds of beets will get you about 300 pounds of sugar,” said Erickson.
Amalgamated also operates a plant in Nyssa where brown sugar is made.
Erickson, McNally and Wettstein all said there is a misconception about sugar beet and cane sugar.
There is no difference between the two, said McNally.
“Sugar is sugar. It’s all about consumer perception and, really, it is a testament to the power of marketing,” said McNally.
“It is kind of a message problem we have right now. We are trying to get people to understand sugar is sugar,” he said.
Have a news tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-473-3377.