Western Sugar Hosts Tour

Published online: Dec 11, 2017 News Charissa Bryce

Source: Scottsbluff Star Herald

Tours at the Western Sugar Cooperative factory on Dec. 5 provided a firsthand look at the entire process of making sugar, starting with planting and ending with how to find Western Sugar on the grocery store shelf. 

Western Sugar Cooperative officials led the private tours of the factory in Scottsbluff, Neb., and hosted a dinner. Proceeds from the tour and dinner tickets go to fund scholarships that are awarded to students who intend to pursue ag-related careers.

The tour began at 4 p.m. with an introduction from Western Sugar agronomist Michael Ann Relka.

“Just a little background—Western Sugar is a cooperative; we are grower-owned,” Relka said. “The Scottsbluff factory has an economic impact of about $124 million a year and employs around 390 employees.”

After Relka gave a brief background on Western Sugar becoming a grower-owned cooperative in 2002, she showed a 14-minute video depicting the history of sugarbeet crops in the North Platte Valley.

The video showed how sugarbeet farming started in the valley around 1902 with mainly horse-powered operations. Through developing technology, farmers transitioned to using more machinery and less livestock—and even less manpower—in sugarbeet production. Viewers learned that sugarbeet growers in the valley have options as to the types of seeds they plant and how different seeds have resistance toward certain plant diseases and parasites.

“That video was just on the growing season,” Relka said. “It’s a few years old at this point, so some of the things you saw have changed.”

She said the most notable change lies with the genetics of the crop.

“At this point, we have a genetically modified seed, which allows us to use just one herbicide instead of the six to eight herbicides you saw,” she said.

Another topic discussed in the video that Relka said has changed recently deals with weed control. The video stated it would take up to eight trips in attempts to control rampant weeds.

“Now we can do it primarily with that one herbicide in about three trips across the field,” said Relka. “We have much better weed control doing this. A couple things that move on from that is we have less tillage to be done to control the weeds, so the cultivation, you’re not seeing nearly as much of that.”

Manual labor is also decreasing in the sugarbeet industry.

Relka said since the introduction of more machinery in the sugar process, Western Sugar’s yields have increased immensely.

A 10-minute video concerning the harvesting process of sugarbeets was then shown to the tour group.

This video portrayed the history of the harvest and how it has evolved over the years. Once again, the introduction of machinery has drastically changed the process by involving less man- and horsepower, thereby reducing fuel and labor costs.

After the second video, Tracy Bentley, process manager at Western Sugar, gave a presentation on the process from harvest to the grocery store. Bentley’s presentation included passing around samples from the different stages of the sugar-making process.

Dan Clark, who has lived in nearby Gering, Neb., since 1970, went on the sugar factory tour with his wife Jamalee for the first time. He said taking the tour has been on their to-do list for a while, and they were excited to finally go.

 “I suppose as far as shocking, is the incredible amount of sugar that is made in a factory like this,” said Clark. “It is far more than I would have guessed. It seems like there’s enough sugar there to feed the world, and of course it’s only a drop in the bucket compared to all the sugar.”

The Scottsbluff factory produces up to 112 million pounds of granulated, powdered and brown sugar each year.

 “I guess for me, the part that deals with chemistry,” was the most interesting part of the tour for Clark. “I’m an old chemistry major from undergraduate school, and I’ve always been interested in that sort of thing. And the lady conducting our little tour group was excellent—very knowledgeable about the various processes involved in converting these beets into granulated sugar.”

The tour ended with a catered dinner in which Western Sugar’s finest product was used.