Hey! You with the bowl of Cheerios! Before you dump another tablespoon of sugar on your breakfast cereal, stop and think about how that sugar arrived at your kitchen table. You might say it came from the grocery store. That’s true, but we’re here to tell you there’s a lot more to the story.
Sugar is a main ingredient in many of the foods you eat. Mary Poppins even used a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. It is impossible to express in words the enormous importance of sugar beet farming and production in Southern Idaho’s economy.
It starts with a tiny seed and an army of dedicated farmers to produce 120,000 acres of sugar beet crops that feed Amalgamated Sugar’s factories. The temperate climate crop looks like a large cream-colored carrot. Sugar is produced in the leaves of the plant and stored in the root. This is the time of year for harvest. From now until mid-March, the Amalgamated factories in Paul, Twin Falls and Nampa will be running non-stop during their busiest time of year – the beet campaign. About 400 year-round and more than 400 seasonal employees are needed to process the beets. Not to mention the hundreds of others – farmers, harvesters, truck drivers, aerial applicators, and so on – who earn their livelihood in one way or another throughout the sugar beet process.
At the Paul factory, close to 3 million tons of sugar beets are processed every year. During this time of year, you see a constant flow of semi-trucks hauling beets to the factory. With 700 tons of beets being washed and sliced each hour, it takes only three minutes to unload one semi-truck trailer plus its “pup” trailer.
Think about it; that’s a lot of beets!
After the beets are sliced into strips, sugar is extracted with hot water. After the juice is extracted, what’s left of the beet is called pulp, which is processed separately and used as livestock feed. The Paul factory produces 80,000 tons of dried beet pulp each year.
This is where a degree in chemistry comes in handy. To put it simply, the raw juice is purified with lime and carbon dioxide, then filtered and concentrated. Every day over 325 tons of lime rock is sent through a 2,000-degree furnace and converted into quicklime to purify the beet juice. A byproduct of this process is steam, which is then harnessed to produce 5 million watts of additional electricity for the factory – enough power to light the entire city of Paul.
The Paul factory can slice beets faster than it can make sugar out of it, so it stores the thick sugar juice in eight tanks that hold six million gallons each. They perform 150 tests per hour to ensure the highest quality in their product.
The juice is then filtered. It’s a golden brown color at this point. It is boiled under vacuum, and crystals begin to form. Then it’s sent to large cylinders that spin rapidly, separating the molasses from the sugar crystals. The sugar is then washed, dried and packaged. The Paul factory produces over 2.5 million pounds of sugar each day.
Think about that one. Say is slowly – two point five million pounds of sugar every day. That’s incredible.
Most of the sugar is shipped out via railroad. Amalgamated makes sugar for several name brand companies that use the sugar in about every type of product you can think of. Amalgamated produces 11 percent of the U.S. sugar consumption.
From a tiny seed to a sweet tablespoon in your morning coffee, much effort goes into sugar beet production. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “How in the world can you make white sugar out of these mounds of dirty beets?” – it takes an intensive industrial operation, and even after seeing it up close, it’s still an astounding process that most of us take for granted.
All so that you can satisfy your sweet tooth.
By John Dean
Photos By Jason Lugo