For all of Northern Colorado’s reliance on farm crops – wheat, corn, barley and more – it’s sugar beets that have made the deepest impression on farm income over the years.
Weld County leads the state in sugar-beet acres harvested and in annual production, while Larimer County harvests an average of 2,000 acres annually. Locally grown sugar beets are sent to plants in Fort Morgan and Torrington, Wyo., for processing and purification into the fine white powder known to bakers worldwide.
The sweet industry started a century ago with independently owned processing plants opening in Loveland from 1901 to 1906. These were followed soon after by plants in Fort Collins, Greeley, Eaton, Windsor and other locations. By 1909, Colorado was the leading beet-sugar producing state, and Great Western Sugar Co., which consolidated six sugar enterprises connected by the Great Western Railroad, the largest sugar producer in the nation.
The growing industry needed workers to harvest the labor-intensive beet crop and work the four-month processing “campaigns” at the sugar factories, so plant owners recruited German-Russian and Swedish workers from neighboring states and, years later, from Mexico. These immigrants added diversity and brought additional business to the area to serve their needs.
“Originally people were tenant farmers and they lived on the land and handled the beets,´ said Don Redabaugh, a former field manager for Great Western Sugar Co. “The Germans started coming in the early 1900s and before long they raised large families who finally bought the farms. With these families it was known that everybody in the family worked the beets, and it was said the mother had a baby at the end of the row and the baby worked on the way back up.”
According to the Fort Collins Library Archives, “The impact of the sugar factory on Fort Collins was so substantial that historian Evadene Swanson judged that much of Fort Collins’ ‘prosperity for the next forty years revolved around the cultivation of beets and the feeding of lambs.'”
In 1935, Hope Williams Sykes wrote “Second Hoeing” describing the struggles of the German-Russian immigrant sugar beet workers.
“This whole area was the biggest sheep (and lamb) feeding area and sugar beet growing in the country,´ said LeRoy Waag, a retired Fort Collins farmer who started working the beets in 1931. “The sheep would eat and pasture on the beet tops. But consolidation and concentrated farming has changed the landscape. All I know is things change.”
The sugar-beet industry remained strong through the 1950s. Then overfarming forced the crop out of previously productive fields, and Great Western Sugar closed its Fort Collins plant on Vine Drive in 1955.
In 1967, Great Western sold its operations to a private investor, and 35 years of financial and ownership turmoil followed. In 2002, growers banded together to purchase Western Sugar from its British owners, and now run the operation as a cooperative.
Although the industry still supports 7,000 jobs in the state, times are tough in the beet business. Between 1996 and 2004, sugar prices plummeted 20 percent. Population growth in Northern Colorado has pushed beet growers further east, and Weld County lost its last remaining sugar-beet factory earlier this year when Western Sugar closed its Greeley plant.