History: Leafhoppers trounced sugarbeet investors

Published online: May 06, 2014
Viewed 152 time(s)

RENO, Nev.—As early as the 1880s, the University of Nevada suggested that sugarbeets would be a good cash crop for Nevada farmers. Yet, not until 1909, did any growers consider planting beets.

That year, leading citizens organized the Fallon Commercial Club to investigate the sugarbeet industry. By 1910, the Fallon farmers were receiving water to grow their crops from the Truckee-Carson Reclamation project and the Lahontan Dam.

Dr. Charles Hascall, chair of the club, convinced the growers of the value of raising sugarbeets rather than alfalfa. The club members believed that replacing the alfalfa fields with a more profitable crop of sugarbeets would benefit Churchill County's farmers.

The organization contacted a company from Southern California that took an option on the old mill site in Churchill County for a processing plant and leased land from the Southern Pacific Railroad to cultivate the beets. In March, sponsors invested $1 million in the Nevada Sugar Co. to construct a 500-ton processing factory on 20 acres outside of town.

In 1911, the company imported 30 tons of seed from Bohemia to distribute to the local farmers. The plants looked healthy during the summer but by November, their leaves turned curly and dropped to the ground. Carnegie Institution studied the problem and found that the local pigweed hosted microscopic leafhoppers that jumped from the surrounding weeds to the beet fields. The insects spread a virus commonly referred to as "curly top." Although, the farmers sprayed the beet fields and pigweed, they were mostly unsuccessful in eradicating the bugs and disease.

The following year, the first sack of sugar was processed, but the total harvest amounted to only 15,000 sacks of sugar beets. After investing more than $700,000 without generating a profit, the plant closed in 1914.

In 1916, George Wingfield and others bought the plant for $245,816.13. They reorganized the company and secured the Idaho-Utah Sugar Co. to manage the factory. In Fallon, the enterprise operated as the Nevada Sugar Co. The next year, only small returns were generated.

From 1918 until 1926, the plant was closed. That year, Wingfield and local residents, Robert Douglass, Ira Kent and Ernest Berney persuaded the farmers to expand their acreage in cultivating sugar beets. Wingfield had 200 men working in the fields and another 100 in the factory. By 1927, they were producing 40,000 sacks of beets, above the past record of 25,000.

The growers finally produced an adequate crop, but market prices fell, and they could not make a profit. In 1928, Wingfield sold the plant equipment to a San Francisco junk dealer. From 1929 to 1934, the processing factory allegedly was used for illegal whiskey-making during Prohibition. In 1934, the building was demolished for its brick and steel, and the equipment went to Japan for scrap iron.

The Fallon farmers returned to planting alfalfa. While scientists developed several types of seeds that are resistant to "curly top" and improved insecticides to kill the leafhoppers and virus, few, if any, Nevada farmers have attempted to grow sugar beets since the 1920s.

Source: www.rgj.com