SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb.-Workers wearing earplugs, hardhats and hairnets greeted visitors at the 13th annual three-hour tour of the Western Sugar Cooperative factory Dec. 9 in Scottsbluff.
Through two videos, a presentation and a walk-through of the plant, community members learned about the history of the sugar factory and how sugarbeets are turned into powdered, granulated and brown sugars.
The informative videos described how sugar beets were once harvested.
The original factory was built in 1910, but beets were raised in the area as early as 1902.
Early growers relied on manure for fertilizer and hand laborers to help remove remaining weeds.
In the 1970s, mechanical thinning started.
The sugar-making process itself remains virtually unchanged from the early days, aside from new equipment, automation and higher standards.
One day of harvest today is equal to 30 days in the past.
WSC has been grower-owned since 2002 when sugar growers collectively bought the factory.
There are five factories in total with 1000 to 1100 owners.
The company is a closed co-op in which 1 acre equals 1 share.
"WSC employs 300 people year round and 500 during harvest," said Luke Rust, plant manager.
That number does not include rehaul drivers, who are typically contract workers.
During the planting season, irrigation is essential for sugar beets as rainfall only accounts for a small percentage of needed water.
Today, strip and minimum till cultivation is more common for soil and water conservation.
Fungicides are also important to control cercospora leafspot and powdery mildew.
Cercospora leafspot causes reduced tonnage and sucrose and increases impurities in sugar beets.
Powdery mildew inhibits photosynthesis and can reduce sugar yields by up to 30 percent.
The remaining solid from the sugarbeet is called pulp and is sold as cattle feed.
The bales of hay around the sugarbeet piles are there to protect them from freezing as well as any warm temperatures.
Rust said, "The beets are storing really well right now."
Some of the larger sugarbeet farmers operations run 24 hours, with two 12 hour shifts.
After the videos and presentation, the more than 40 visitors divided into small groups for a tour of the factory.
The tour included stops at all but one stage of the sugar-making process.
Due to the frigid weather, those on the tour were spared the negative temperatures and did not see the receiving area or the rock and trash catchers. After the sugar beets are delivered to the factory, they are sent through the rock and trash catchers, then washed in a giant bath.
Next, they are sliced into long noodle-like pieces called cossettes.
They are then sent through a diffuser and on to filters that remove mud and impurities from the juices.
Once the sugar has gone through crystallization and separation it is ready to be bagged.
Sugar is bagged automatically and hot-sealed before continuing down a conveyor belt where it is boxed and sent to the warehouse.
The Scottsbluff factory currently packages 32 different brands of sugar.
During dinner, the group learned that the sugar factory uses cane sugar molasses to make brown sugar because sugar beet molasses is too bitter.
"We have five self-propelled harvesters in the valley," said Rust.
There aren't more because their price tag is too high for the size of many farms.
EPA changes are also expected to have a major impact over the next year.
The sugar factory has already begun preparing for some of those changes with upgraded boilers and other work around the factory.
Rust answered questions about how much sugar is obtained from beets.
"Beet sugar makes up about 60 percent of the U.S. market," Rust said.
For those who are curious about the occasional smell coming from the sugar factory, sometimes, "there is too much sugar in the lime pond," said Rust.
The sugar ferments in the pond and that's the smell that wafts up your nose.
Customers can support local growers by checking the labels on their sugar packages. If there is an F in the code, it came from the Scottsbluff factory, if there is an N, it came from the Torrington, Wyo. factory.
Dinner at the annual event was provided by several companies in the area.
Betaseed, WESTCO and Western Sugar provided all the food for tour visitors.
The tour is one of two fund raisers for the Scottsbluff/Gering United Chamber of Commerce. All money raised provides funds for a scholarship to a senior in the area who is studying agriculture.