Sugarbeets in Ontario – the renaissance of an industry

It’s been almost 20 years since farmers brought sugarbeet production back to Ontario. Since then, the industry has expanded from 268 acres and nine growers to approximately 84 growers producing a crop on 10,000 acres.

Much of that growth can be attributed to research and development projects supported by the Agricultural Adaptation Council (AAC), particularly in the early days.

“Our most important challenge in the beginning was weed control and minor use registrations for crop protection,” explains Mark Lumley, Chair of the Ontario Sugarbeet Growers’ Association. “We needed Ontario-specific information to provide growers with the necessary tools to grow a good crop, and AAC project funding helped us achieve that.”

And it was follow up work on sugarbeet piling – storing of the crop before processing – that really helped grow the Ontario industry.

In the early days, growers – many of them near the U.S border crossing at Sarnia – delivered their crop to a central piling yard in the Chatham area, from where it was shipped to Michigan for processing.

In order to deliver direct to processor Michigan Sugar, growers needed to be able to store sugarbeets on-farm in much smaller piles than the large, traditional ones at the central piling yard.

“Small on-farm piles had never been heard of in our industry before, so we conducted a study to evaluate things like product quality, weight, shape and direction of the pile, and length of piling time,” explains Lumley, adding that field piling significantly reduced transportation expenses for growers in Lambton as well as all growers in the co-op as those costs are average across the whole group.

The results led to a second study involving large piles – those results were presented to the American Society of Sugar Beet Technologists and are now being used in both Ontario and Michigan.

Both piling studies were supported by AAC, as was the design of a specialized cleaner header for the MAUS system at the piling yard which cleans sugarbeets before they’re shipped to processing.

Growers are paid on recoverable white sugar per ton of sugarbeets. Less bruising due to gentler handling resulted in fewer impurities in the sugar and therefore better returns for the grower.

“This had a real impact on the industry. Our growers are looked on as very innovative across the entire sugarbeet industry and it was help from AAC that provided the opportunity for us to turn our ideas, such as the new MAUS header for the piling yard, into reality,” says Lumley. “These projects really helped establish and grow the industry in Ontario.”

Today, new sugarbeet innovations involve looking beyond sugar production at new market opportunities like ethanol to help growers continue to expand.