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Real sugar beats artificial sweetener in southern Alberta

Posted on November 9, 2023 by Vauxhall Advance

By Cal Braid
Vauxhall Advance
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

At the Lantic Sugar plant and their receiving stations in the surrounding areas, sugar beets are piled high by the tonnes. It’s processing time and harvest is almost complete for the beet farmers. Between Lantic and the farm families who grow the crop is the Alberta Sugar Beet Growers (ASBG), a marketing board that supports and serves the farmers it represents.

The ASBG administers quotas for crop growth, negotiates pricing contracts with the processor (Lantic), advocates before governments and stakeholders, educates, and does research to develop and expand the industry. Executive director, Jennifer Crowson, said, “Our main focus is supporting our growers, and as a marketing board we manage quota. A big part of what we do is advocate for our growers.”

Crowson explained that the ASBG has a permanent quota that typically is subject to a “reduction” from Lantic, which is based on the quantity the facility can process in a given year. “We manage that,” she said. “So each grower that has a contract will be allowed to grow based on their quota and all the growers have contracts of different sizes.”

As the representative of the grower body ASBG does the negotiations with Lantic and in turn, each of the growers sign their own contracts individually with the company. Currently, Lantic is the only processor of sugar beets in Canada, and can accommodate only a given quantity of beets for processing during their ‘slice campaign.’ This dictates the quotas, which are numbered in acres rather than tonnes. The ASBG permanent quota is about 28,000 to 33,895 acres – 28,000 in an average year, based on the factory’s capacity to store and process the beets.

“We’re regulated under the Agricultural Products Act,” Crowson said. “Here in southern Alberta, we are the only source of 100 per cent Canadian sugar, because beets are both grown and processed here. No other beets are processed anywhere in Canada to make sugar.” The ASBG is led by a board of nine directors, representing all growing areas including Taber, Bow Island/Burdett, Vauxhall, Enchant, Tempest, Coaldale, Picture Butte, plus a president and a director at large that are not area specific.

She continued, “They’re a high-value crop that needs irrigation so that’s why they’re grown in southern Alberta. They need heat units and irrigation.”

The crops require 20 inches of irrigation a year, and commercial sugar beets aren’t farmed on dryland. Elsewhere in the country, there are about 10,000 acres of sugar beets grown in southern Ontario each year, but those are exported to Michigan for processing. The beets have been grown in Manitoba as well.

Crowson described the benchmarks used to determine the success of a beet crop in southern Alberta, saying, ”On an average year, they’re getting 33 to 35 tonnes per acre and this year we’ve averaged 35 to 36 tonnes an acre which is better than last year.”

The other measurable indicator of quality is extractable sugar. The beets have both a sugar content and an extractable sugar content. The content is determined by the tare lab at the facility. “This year our average sugar content is about 17 per cent, so far,” she said. “This year we’re hoping that we might have a grower hit 20-40, which is 20 per cent sugar and 40 tonnes per acre,” adding, “We won’t know that until harvest is complete.” There are about 1500 acres left to harvest, but now that the beets in the ground are frozen, growers are waiting on the go-ahead from Lantic to determine when they can resume harvesting. Storing the beets after harvest can be problematic due to freezing and thawing cycles that affect the structure of the beet, making them soft, mushy and difficult to process.

The ASBG website explains the refinery process in these steps:

1. Sugar beets are washed to remove dirt and debris

2. The sugar beets are sliced into thin, potato-like ‘shoe-string’ strips, called cossettes.

3. The cossettes are boiled, which pulls the sucrose out of the thin strips, creating a raw juice.

4. Once the sucrose has been removed, the remaining fibre from the cossettes is pressed, dried, and turned into pellets for livestock feed.

5. The raw juice moves into a clarification process where impurities are removed through filtration.

6. The sugar in the juice is then crystallized through the clarification process and is spun using large centrifuges.

7. The sugar that has been spun out is then dried and is ready for packaging and shipping.

The ASBG website reports that though 200 farm families are currently growing sugar beets in Alberta, those growers only supply eight per cent of the total domestic sugar market in Canada. They attribute the uneven balance of market shares to the fact that raw cane from southern climates can be imported quite inexpensively. Sugarcane can’t grow in the north, but Alberta and Ontario both possess regions with hot days, cool nights, and access to water, which is suitable for growing sugar beets.

The ASBG also states that whether it be a cane or beet source, there is no difference in the molecular makeup of sugar and that “imported raw cane sugar can drive down the price that farmers receive for their sugar beets.”

Other stats and facts from the ASBG are:

-Sugar beets grow as white, tear-shaped roots that weigh between three to five pounds and are refined into granulated sugar, icing sugar, molasses, and beet pulp: a high-fiber livestock feed. 

Currently, there is only one sugar beet refinery in the entire country (in Taber) and it provides the only source of 100 per cent Canadian sugar products.

-Regional beet farmers supply Lantic/Rogers with approximately 840,000 tonnes of beets every year, resulting in 125,000 tonnes of sugar for the supermarket shelves. The remaining 90 per cent of the sugar sold and consumed nationally is brought in as raw cane sugar from South American countries and then refined in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal.

-Alberta’s sugar industry provides over 2000 jobs, $50 million in labour income, and nearly $250 million in economic contribution, according to the ASBG.

To support your local sugar beet farmers, look for Roger’s Sugar in your grocery store. A black factory stamp with #absugar22 indicates that the sugar was grown by farm families in Canada.

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