The Sugarbeet Industry in California

California Beet Growers Association, Ltd.
2 W. Swain Road
Stockton, California 95207-4395

This brochure is an update and revision of a pamphlet originally produced by the Agricultural Experiment Extension, University of Califoniia. The original authors were F. J. Hills, agronomists Cooperative Extension, University of California, Davis; S. S. Johnson, agricultural economists College of Agriculture, University ofhawaii, Hilo; and B. A. Goodwin, executive manager, California Beet Growers Association, Stockton. The revision was done by Garry Fisk and Jere Snyder, field representatives, California Beet Growers Association, in April 1995. It has been most recently modified by S. Kaffka in September 1998.



Sugarbeets are grown in about 30 California counties, from Siskiyou in the north to Imperial in the south.  Table 1 indicates counties that grow substantial acreage of sugarbeet, their average root yields, and their sucrose percentages. In 1993, 53 percent of the acreage was in the Central Valley from Stanistaus County north, 24 percent in the Central Valley from Merced County south to Kern County, 19 percent in the irrigated desert area of Imperial County, and one percent in the coastal counties, primarily Monterey County.

Water availability and cost, returns for competing crops, and the prices farmers receive for sugarbeets are among the factors that have influenced the acreage of the crop grown in California. Considerable fluctuation in acreage and in the average per-ton price received by farmers occurs ftom year to year.

Since 1972, root yield appears to have fluctuated from a high yield of nearly 29 tons per acre to a low of just under 24 tons per acre. Sugarbeets have the potential to produce more. Many growers produce over 35 and even 40 tons or roots per acre.
Even with current technology, a statewide average yield of 30 tons per acre appears to be achievable.

As a crop, sugarbeet is quite remarkable. An acre of sugarbeet producing 27 tons of roots containing 15 percent sucrose yields nearly 7,000 pounds of recoverable sugar. It also contains almost 3,000 pounds of dry root pulp and approximately 2,000 pounds of molasses, which are used for animal feed.


California has four sugarbect processing plants operated by Spreckels Sugar Co. (Table 2). With a state average root yield of 26 tons per acre per year and each plant operating six months out of the year, California has enough processing capacity to handle 200,000 acres of sugarbeet annually.

Sugarbeet is grown under contract by the individual grower for a processing company. The contract is of the participating type, guaranteeing the grower a share of the net return the processor realizes from the sale of sugar during a designated 12-month period. The Net Selling Price is computed by calculating gross receipts per 100 pounds of sugar sold by the company and then deducting the cost of selling the sugar. Selling costs include packaging, the cost of shipment of sugar to market, brokerage fees, and the like. The price per ton of sugarbeet is determined from the Net Selling Price of finished sugar and the sugar content of beet roots (Table 3).

Sugar content is determined by analysis of a 20- to 30-pound sample taken from each load of beets delivered to a receiving station. As beets are delivered, growers are paid about 90 percent of the anticipated final price calculated from a forecast of final returns. During the twelve-month sales year, additional payments may be made if returns from sugar sales warrant them. Final and complete payment is made one month following the end of the sales year. A certified public accountant audits the company's sales record and certifies the Net Selling Price realized.

Each sugar company maintains an agricultural department with a staff of field representatives who conduct the company's business with each grower and assist in making decisions concerning cultural operations affecting the grower's crop.

The Calffomia Beet Growers Association, with headquarters in Stockton, was established in 1931 to protect and promote the interest of the state's sugar beet growers. The Association represents growers in contract negotiations with sugar companies. It provides grower input in industry discussions in matters dealing with federal and state legislation and joins with processors in the promotion and financing of research for the benefit of the industry. Association field representatives routinely inspect the weighing and sampling operations at sugarbeet receiving stations and the analysis of samples for tare and sugar content at company laboratories.


The sugarbeet (Beta vulgaris) belongs to the same plant species as red table beets, Swiss chard, mangle, and fodder beets. Normally, it grows vegetatively the first year, producing a large storage root in which sucrose is stored. The second year, after the plant with its large storage mot goes through a coot winter, a seed stalk forms, seed is produced, and the life cycle is completed. At the end of the vegetative cycle, sugarbeet storage roots are harvested and sucrose is extracted in a refining process. The process cannot be duplicated successfully in a home kitchen.

Sugarbeets require about seven months of good growing weather to produce a profitable crop. Generally, the earlier the planting, the higher the yield, provided that temperatures at planting are conducive to rapid growth and plants are not retarded in growth by serious diseases or other problems.

When sugarbeets are growing rapidly, the sugar content of roots is low (from 10 to 13 percent). When plant growth is slowed and light intensity is still high, roots can increase in sugar content to as high as 18 or 19 percent. Nitrogen deficiency just prior to harvest and cold nights slow vegetative growth and increase sugar content.

A large portion of the crop in Northern California is planted in the winter and spring months and harvested in the fall. Beet fields in certain areas of Northern California are overwintered, that is, they are held in the ground for harvest the following spring. Varieties overwintaed in Northern California after most of their root growth has taken place produce seed stam (bolt) the following spring. In the Imperial Valley, sugarbeets are planted in September and grow through the winter months for harvest the following April through June. Winters in ft area are not cold enough to cause much bolting when varieties have been selected for bolting resistance. Even in colder areas, varieties with good bolting resistance can be planted in October, go through the winter months with very small roots, and bolt very little the following spring. Table 4 lists the usual planting and harvesting periods for the various production regions of Califoniia.

Varieties. Sugarbeet cultivars (varieties) that have been developed by the USDA and private seed companies are well adapted to California and resistant to diseases that once caused widespread losses. In most areas, it is important to select varieties that are resistant to diseases such as rhizomania, virus yellows, or curly top.

All varieties marketed throughout California are in industry-sponsored seed trial. These trials are conducted by a seed evaluation committee that consists of growers, processors, and seed company representatives. All trials run by the committee are coded (not identified as to specific variety names until tests are completed), and varieties are judged for sugar production and disease resistance.

Currently, there are six seed companies selling sugarbeet seed in California. They are American Crystal, Betaseed, Hilleshog/Sandoz Seeds, Holly Hybrids, Seedex, and Spreckels Sugar. The companies process and size seed to allow precision planting and treat the seed to protect germinating seedlings from soil fungi and insects.

Planting, emergence, and thinning. Sugarbeets are usually planted on raised planting beds, four to five inches in height and 30 inches apart. In some areas, they may be planted on two-row beds that are 14 inches from center to center or on beds that are 22 inches apart. For good emergence, the seedbeds should be firm, mulched fine enough on top to permit planting to a uniform depth, flat on top to permit the efficient operation of a mechanical thinner or hand crew, and uniform in height to allow careful irrigation.

If field emergence is good (50 percent or better), seeds can be planted four to six inches apart with the expectation that the resulting stand will not need to be thinned. Many beet fields, however, are planted at closer seed spacings and require the use of a mechanical thinner or long-handled hoes to space the plants ftom six to 12 inches in the row.

Fertilization and irrigation. Nitrogen fertilizer is reqiured for profitable beet production on many fields. The crop requires ample amounts of this nutrient for maximum vegetative growth, but also requires a nitrogen deficiency just prior to harvest for proper sugar accumulation in the storage roots. Applying the correct amount of nitrogen for maximum sugar production is extremely important for each individual farmer.

Furrow irrigation is the connnon method, but sprinklers are used when topography, a high water table, and other special conditions make the, furrow system difficult. Sprinkler irrigation though more costly, has the advantages of improving seedling emergence and using less water in the early stages of plant growth. Careful and timely irrigations are essential to a good sugarbeet yield. Water requirements range from as little as 18 inches of water per acre per season in a cool climate where the soil is filled with plentiful winter rain to as much as 54 inches per acre in a hot,  dry climate with limited winter rain.

Weeds, pests, and diseases. The control of pests and diseases is important for profitable crop production. To aid in controlling pests and disease, the state is divided into nine local districts, each having a disease control or beet free policy. These policies take into account local conditions and problems and recommend to growers the best dates for planting and harvest to avoid these problems.

Important diseases are rhizomania, a virus nmmitted by a soil-borne ftmgus that attacks the root; curly top, a virus disease transmitted by the sugarbeet leafhopper; virus yellows, a virus complex transmitted by the grew peach and black bean aphids; and powdery mildew, a leaf ftmgus disease. Strategies for control of these diseases involve development of resistant varieties, attention to time of planting, isolation of new plantings from old sugarbeet fields that can serve as sources of virus inoculum, and selective use of fungicides.

In most areas of the state, the sugarbeet cyst nematode and the root-knot nematode are important pests and must be controlled by careful crop rotation and equipment sanitation.

Harvesting. Sugarbeets are machine harvested and delivered either to beet receiving stations at railroad sidings or directly to factories. The delivery of beets to a sugar factory must be kept to the amount that can be processed in a fairly short time, so growers are usually faced with tonnage quotas at harvest time. Growers may form harvest pools to allow continuous operation of a harvest crew, and decide within the pool which fields should be harvested first. Fields in Northern California that are planted to achieve mm of their root growth before winter but are overwintered for spring harvest will bolt as the spring season progresses. Bolting causes some small loss in sugar yield, but the loss is not drastic. if fields are overly delayed in spring harvest, seed smlks are usually removed six to 12 inches above the crown to prevent seeds from maturing and becoming weeds in subsequent crops.

For information on specific aspects of sugarbeet production, contact a local farm advisor or sugar company field representative.


Roughly 700 growers harvested 150,000 acres of sugarbeets in 1992, with a statewide average of about 215 acres per grower and an average yield of 26.6 tons per acre. Sugarbeets are grown as part of a diversified cropping program.

Sugar production and financial data were obtained from sugarbeet growers in February/March 1993 for the 1992 Crop. The Farm Costs and Return Survey developed by the USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) was used in compiling the information presented in Table 5. The cost estimates, given on a per acres and per net ton basis, are averages for the producers responding to the ERS survey and are not necessarily representative of all areas of the state.


Many carbohydrates are classified as sugars, but the 'sugar' of commerce is a specific disaccharide, sucrose, the breakdown of which yields two simpler sugars, glucose and fructose. Most plants synthesize sucrose for use as an energy source in growth and flowering but store energy in the form of stuch. Sucrose, however, is stored directly in the stem of the sugarcane plant and the root of the sugarbeet, making these two plants favorite choices for the production of commercial sugar. Sugarcane grows in tropical climates and, to some exten@ in the warmer areas of temperate zones. In most areas of the world too cold to grow sugarcane, sugarbeet is grown instead. World sugar production is forecast at 113.6 1994195. Table 6 shows where this production is concentrated. About 68 percent of the world's sugar comes from cane and 32 percent from sugarbeet. Sugar purchased from the grocery store, whether from cane or beet, is about 99.96 percent pure sucrose, and the two products are completely interchangeable in food preparation.


Calorie-containing sweeteners other than sucrose are also used in food preparation. Sweeteners derived from corn can be high fructose com syrup (HFCS), crystalline fructose, glucose, or dextrose. The food industry and consumers also use a relatively --nnil amount of other sweeteners, such as honey and other edible syrups. ne being, soft drink, and other food industries have used liquid sugar in their products for many years. These industries now tend to substitute increasing amounts of HFCS for liquid sucrose solutions, and prices for these substitutes have been substantially lower than sucrose prices (Table 7). The high fructose content of these syrups imparts a sweetening flavor comparable to that of sucrose. Since 1971, HFCS has captured an increasing amount of the sucrose market Sucrose, as a percentage of the U.S. sugar and HFCS consumption, declined from 57 percent in 1990/91 to 53 percent in 1994195, while HFCS increased over the same period to 47 percent from 43 percent.

High fructose com syrup is produced by enzymatically converting the stuch in com grain to a solution containing either 42 or 55 percent fructose, the balance of the syrup being mostly dextrose, with a small amount of higher saccharides. This sweetener has a relatively short shelf life. HFCS can be crystallized, but the high production cost has restricted sales. Since 1980, per capita caloric sweetener consumption in the United States has increased from approximately 124.4 pounds to an estimated 149.2 pounds for 1994. Per capita sucrose consumption declined from approximately 83.6 pounds in 1980 to approximately 60 pounds in 1986. Since 198 6, sugar consumption has increased and was approximately 64.6 pounds per capita in 1994. Of the nearly 65 pounds of sucrose consumed per capita in 1993/94, about 38 percent came from U.S.-grown cane, 43 percent from U.S.-grown beet, and 19 percent from imported raw cane sugar.


Hawaii, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas produce all of the United States' sugarcane crop. Productivity is considerably higher in Hawaii than in the other three states. In 1993/94, with only seven percent of the total U.S. acreage, Hawaii produced nearly 20 percent of the sugarcane. Sugarbeet is grown in 14 states, ranging from Michigan in the Great Lakes area to California on the west coast. Sugafbeet root yield is considerably higher in California and Oregon than in other states. In 1993194, California produced an average of 29 tons per acre, yielding a gross sugar production of 87 hundredweights per acre (Table 8).


Worldwide, the major sugar producing nations provide substantial support for their farmers. There are many reasons advanced for this support, including strategic reasons and the provision of added income to local growers in order to maintain a level of domestic production that provides price stability for consumers.

About 76 percent of the world's sugar production Ls consumed in the country of origin or muketed under long-term arrangements between producing and consuming nations. Thus, the sugar sold in the 'world muker is residual sugar, bringing high prices when production problems reduce supplies and extremely low prices in periods of overproduction. Over- production can be brought about by production incentives in the form of high price   support    levels    established     by governments.

The U.S. has provided support to the domestic sugar industry since 1934. From 1934 to 1974, production and noarketing of sugar in the U.S. were regulated by continuous federal legislation. Originating as the Jones-Costigan Act of 1934 and subsequently amended and changed a number of times, the Sugar Act provided government control of the quantity of domestic and imported sugar available. Price objectives were achieved through quotas on domestic production and quotas and duties
on imports. The purpose of the Sugar Act was not only to protect the domestic sugar industry, but to allow selected foreign countries to export sugar to the United States while keeping consumer prices of sugar at reasonable levels.

The Sugar Act was initiated prior to each year's crop, when the Secretary of Agriculture would determine how much sugar was needed that year to attain a specified price. This sugar supply was allocated to domestic producers of cane and beets and to foreign suppliers. A majority of the returns to domestic growers were from the sale of sugar in the market. A small additional, conditional payment came from an excise tax collected on sugar marketed in the U.S. The advantage of the Sugar Act was that the excise tax on sugar moire than offset the cost of these conditional payments.

From 1974 to 1980, short-term programs were used to help maintain the domestic sugar industry. There was no price support mechanism for the 1974 to 1976 Crops. By 1977, prices fell low enough to cause Congress to initiate an income support loan program for that and succeeding years.

In 1977, many sugar producing and consuming countries acted together to stabilize   price    ranges     through      an
International Sugar Agreement. The aim was to affect prices through export quotas and nationally held reserves (buffer stocks). This program had little success due to a number of factors, including world overproduction and nonparticipation of some producing countries.    The    International      Sugar Agreement expired December 31, 1984, and the participating countries have not been able to develop a continuing program since.

The Food and Agriculture Act of 1977 did not designate U.S. sugar crops for price support, so price support authority for these years came from the Agricultural Act of 1949. This authority provided for the Secretary of Agriculture to make support available through loans, purchases, or other operations. A sugar loan program was adopted for the 1979 Crop, but the 1980 and 1981 Crops were not covered because sugar prices were high enough to simam a domestic industry. The 1981 Farm Bill provided for sugar price supports through a purchase program, followed by a loan program that began with sugar produced on December 22, 1981. These provisions supported sugar prim at SO. 1675 per pound through March 1982. Sugar produced after that was supported through nonrecourse loans. The loan levels for raw sugar increased slightly each year of the legislation, from $0.17 per pound in 1982 to $0.18 per pound in 1985. Processors participating in these programs were required to pay producers minimum prices.

The 1981 Farm Bill was succeeded by the Food Security Act of 1985. That legislation required the Secretary of Agriculture to support domestically produced sugar crops from 1986 to 1990 through a nonrecourse loan program. Appropriate support levels were to be determined by the Secretary but not at less than $0. 18 per pound for raw cane sugar. The sugar provisions required the President to operate the sugar title at 'no cost' to the government. The bill also provided producers with protection from processor bankruptcy or other insolvency which might cause producers not to receive maximum benefits from the price support program.

The 1990 Farm Bill continued the 'no cost' provision and the $0.18 per pound minimum support price as mqnciated in the 1985 Farm Bill. Additionally, a minimum import quota of 1.25 nifllion short tons raw value of foreign sugar was mandated, along with stand-by authority provided the Secretary of Agriculture to impose domestic marketing controls if imports fell below the minimum import level. The minimum import provision also brought about reporting requirements for processors to provide the Secretary with monthly information on importation, distribution, and stock levels.

The 1990 Farm Bill also provided for sugar crop loans to be extended from six to nine months. Loans were to be repaid within die same fiscal year, which provided net revenues to the USDA-operated Commodity Credit Corporation through timely repayment of sugar producer loans with interesl Through this process, there was no cost to the taxpayer for the U.S. sugar program. To emphasize, no direct subsidies are paid to U.S. producers of sugarbeets and sugarcane.

Although not a part of the 1990 Farm Bill, a provision       in    the    1990     Budget Reconciliation Act required a one percent market service fee to be paid on the first marketing of sugar. This amounted to an additional tax on the sugar industry of approximately $25 million per year. The tax was increased in 1994, raising the industry's contribution to the treasury from this source to approximately $30 million per year.


Sugar is contained in both the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFRA) and the Generalized Agreement on Trade & Tariffs (GATT).

The NAFRA pmvides for increased duty- free trade during a 15-year trwisition period with Mexico. In years one through six, Mexico may import their 'surplus sugar production' into the U.S. up to 25,000 tons. The second tier tariff is reduced to 14.5 cents per pound. Mexico will align its tariff regime with that of the U.S. Dufing years seven through 14, the second tier tariff will be phased out, and Mexico may import its surplus production up to 250,000 tons into the U.S. After year 15, there should be free trade on sugar between Mexico and the U.S. The rules of transshipment preclude the shipment of sugar from other countries through Mexico and into the U.S.

The GATT provisions are designed primarily to reduce export subsidies for commodities. Since the U.S. does not subsidize sugar exports, the GATT has no direct effect on sugar producers. The sugar provisions were tariffied as required in 1990. The second tier tariff on sugar of 17 cents per pound will be reduced by 15 percent annually, reaching 14.5 cents per pound in year six of the agreement. The pact binds the U.S. to a nihiimum import access of 1.26 naillion tons of sugar. The U.S. currently imports at least the minimum requirement, and most years, U.S. imports have been considerably above the minimwu under the GATT.

For further information, contact:

Holly Sugar Corporation
P. 0. Box 1052
Colorado Springs, Colorado 80901-1052 (719) 471-0123
Roger W. Hill, President

Spreckels Sugar Company, Inc.
P. 0. Box 8025
Pleasanton, California 94588-8625
(510) 463-3400
Office of the President:
John Bowman, Vice President - Finance
John A. Kolberg, Vice President - Operations John D. HamHM Vice President - Agricultme

California Beer Growers Associadoy; Ltd.
2 W. Swain Road
Stockton, California 95207-4395
(209) 477-5596
Ben Goodwin, Executive Manager

University of California
Agronomy Extension
Davis, California 95616-8515
(916) 752-8108
Dr. Stephen Kaffka, Extension Agronomist

The following publications may be ordered through any University of California Cooperative Extension County office or by writing to ANR Publications, University of California, 6701 San Pablo Avenue, Oakland, California 94608-1239.

Insect and Nematode Control Recommendations for Sugarbeets, Leaflet 21139.
Sugarbeet Nutrient Deficiency Symptoms, Publication 4051.

Sugarbeet Crop Management Series: Sugarbeet Fertilization, Bulletin 1891
Stand Etablishment, Bulletin 1877

Weed Management in Sugarbeets, Leaflet 21375.

Sugarbeet Pest Management Series: Aphid-borne Viruses, Special Publication 3277
Nematodes, Special Publication 3272 Leaf Diseases, Special Publication 3278