Revised February 2022
Sugar is an important commodity that is mainly produced from two crops, sugarbeet and sugarcane. The U.S. is the 5th largest producer of sugar, the 3rd largest importer and the 3rd largest sugar market in the world. Currently the U.S. produces about 9 million tons of sugar per year, with sugar from sugarbeets accounting for 55 to 60% of the production. Sugarbeet is a broadleaf crop with an extensive tap root, which is the portion of the plant harvested for its sugar. Sugarbeet is grown in more than 50 countries globally with production being mostly in regions with below freezing temperatures during the winter months to facilitate the storage of the harvested beets and prolong the time that processing facilities can remain active.
Total sugarbeet production in the United States reached nearly 33.6 million tons harvested from 1.14 million acres with an average yield of 29.4 tons per acre in 2020 (NASS 2020). Each harvested acre of sugarbeets is the source of nearly 4 tons of refined sugar. Sugarbeets are grown in three primary regions in the U.S.: Upper Midwest (Michigan, Minnesota and North Dakota), Great Plains (Colorado, Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming) and the Far West (California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington). California is unique in terms of production because sugarbeets are planted every month of the year except in July and August. Because of storage losses associated with warm temperatures and given that the ground never freezes in California where sugarbeets are grown, sugarbeets are harvested throughout the year to meet the continual processing capacity of the sugar factories.
The number of farms growing sugarbeet have declined from 2012 to 2017 from 3.913 to 3,496 with the area harvested per farm increasing from 319 to 329 acres over the same period. Sugarbeets are planted in the early spring and harvested in late September and October in the Midwest. Yield increases over the past decade have been impressive though there can be considerable yield variability year to year due to the weather. Sugarbeet yields tend to be higher in the Far West, but production costs tend to be higher there as well.
Current sugarbeet varieties can be susceptible to numerous diseases and pests and therefore require more inputs and intensive management than other crops grown in the rotation. The value of a sugarbeet crop depends on the sucrose percentage in the sugarbeets, and producers are generally compensated for the amount of sugar (as opposed to tons of sugarbeets) delivered to processing facilities. The sucrose percentage of the sugarbeet crop can varies considerably, depending on the variety, crop management practices such as timing of nitrogen fertilizer application, moisture and harvest conditions.
Because it is the root that is harvested, sugarbeets require specialized cultivation and harvesting equipment. Sugarbeets grown in northern climates must be harvested before the soil freezes. In these areas, sugarbeets after harvest are piled at receiving stations in the fall for later transport to processing facilities. Once a sugarbeet is harvested, the plant begins to burn sucrose as it decays and the sucrose percentage declines. Sugarbeets in these areas are typically processed over a 6-month period.
The two primary markets for refined sugar are industrial and non-industrial. Industrial market segments include baker and cereal, confectionery (candy), other food uses, dairy (primarily ice cream), beverage and other non-food uses. This market has grown slowly over time. Non-industrial market segments include wholesalers, retailers, other non-industrial uses and hotels, restaurants and institutions. Similar to the industrial market, this market has grown slowly over time (ERS).
Four firms dominate the sugarbeet processing industry: American Crystal Sugar Company (Minnesota), Amalgamated Sugar Company (Idaho), Western Sugar Cooperative (Colorado) and Michigan Sugar Company. Sugarbeet processors contract with sugarbeet producers based on processor allotments. These allotments are adjusted annually. The price of U.S. produced sugar tends to be higher than the world open market due to domestic policies such as marking allotments, the non-recourse sugar loan program and tariff-rate quotas. These policies have impacts on the amount of sugar that is produced in the U.S. as well.
All of the 20 remaining sugarbeet processing plants in the United States are owned by producer-owned cooperatives. In most regions, in order to grow sugarbeets growers must be a member of the cooperative and own shares. The acres that a farmer can plant to sugarbeets is determined by the number of shares owned. Farmers that do not own shares and wish to produce sugarbeets, however, can form a joint partnership with someone that does own shares. This essentially allows a non-coop member to “rent” the shares. Payments at the end of the production season are based on the total profits of the cooperative and the amount of sugar produced, not the total tonnage of sugarbeets delivered. The development of cooperative ownership also has implications for the bearing of risk. In a cooperative setting, growers have an increase in risk from losses that occur after harvest and from price fluctuations. Some processing plants are owned by the coop in regions of the U.S. where there are no coop members. These plants typically contract sugarbeet production with non-coop farmers directly.
In 2019 U.S. sugarbeet prices averaged $38.30 per ton, up $2.70 per ton the previous year, and total sugarbeet production was valued at approximately $1 billion in 2019 (NASS).
The sugar content in beet roots declines once they are harvested, and it is therefore important that sugarbeets are processed as quickly as possible after harvest. However, as long as temperatures remain below freezing, the sucrose content of beets piled and stored outside declines very slowly. In milder climates or years, unprotected piles of sugarbeets experience cycles of freezing and thawing and are subject to deterioration. Processors use several storage techniques to reduce spoilage of stored sugarbeets, including the use of ventilation tunnels constructed in sugarbeet piles. Some processors also have built temperature-regulated storage facilities to extend the sugarbeet storage period.
During the refining process, the sugar stored in beet roots is separated from the rest of the plant material. Sugarbeets are first washed, then sliced and soaked in hot water to remove sugar-containing juices. The juice is purified, filtered, concentrated and dried in a series of steps to create refined sugar. Byproducts created in this process include molasses and beet pulp. Sugar is, by far, the most valuable product. The byproducts of this process are used primarily in animal feed, in baker’s yeast and as a milk enhancer. Beet molasses, for example, is used in animal feed, alcohol production, beverages, bakery goods and pharmaceuticals. Molasses is used for dusk control on gravel roads when salt solutions are prohibited. Recently, sugarbeet molasses is being tested as a green alternative to conventional road deicer. Beet pulp can also be used in animal feed as well as further processed into fiber.
Crop Production Annual Summary, 2021, National Ag Statistics Service, USDA.
Crop Values Annual Summary, 2021, NASS, USDA.
Sugar and Sweeteners Outlook, 2021, ERS, USDA.
Sugar and Sweeteners Yearbook Tables, 2022, ERS, USDA.
Sugarbeet Production Guide, 2021, North Dakota State University Extension.
Growers’ Guide for Producing Quality Sugarbeets, 2016, Michigan Sugar Company.
Quick Facts – Idaho Sugar Beets, 2021, University of Idaho Extension.