Sugar beets, significantly established in Canada in the first half of the 20th century, continue to be sweet for farmers in Ontario and Alberta, a new study has found.
Census of Agriculture data show that in 2006, 314 farms seeded 19,488 hectares in sugar beets, according to the study, “That beet is sweet!” published Friday in the online version of Canadian Agriculture at a Glance.
This area is only half the 1951 peak of 38,716 hectares. But it is 35 per cent higher than it was in 2001 when farmers, faced with expected water shortages and low prices, shifted from sugar beets to other crops.
Early in the 1900s, entrepreneurs saw the potential for a domestic sugar industry and built a number of sugar beet processing plants. Between 1911 and 1951, producers reported increasing numbers of hectares planted in sugar beets in each successive census.
In 2006, Canadian farmers produced over 1.2 million tonnes of sugar beets, up nearly 80 per cent from 2001. Most of this production took place in Alberta, where 963,000 tonnes of sugar beets were used to produce 124,000 tonnes of beet sugar.
An additional 266,000 tonnes of beets were grown in Ontario and exported to Michigan for processing.
Sugar beets virtually disappeared in Ontario after the last beet processing plant closed in 1968. However, the crop is making a comeback in southwestern Ontario.
Russia is the world’s top sugar beet producer, and most of Europe still uses beets as the primary source of sugar. Of the top 10 sugar beet-producing countries in 2006, 8 were European. Canada’s production ranked 31 in the world.
Globally, production of sugar from sugar cane dwarfs that of sugar beets. Cane sugar makes up about three-quarters of all raw sugar produced worldwide, and the three main producers are Brazil, India and China.
Alberta: Canadian home of the sugar beet
Alberta has had the largest share of the country’s sugar beet area since 1951, according to Census of Agriculture data.
In 2006, Alberta farmers planted 15,700 hectares, up from 12,000 hectares five years earlier. This represents 81 per cent of the country’s sugar beet area, all of it in the Taber area.
Sugar refined in Taber is sold primarily in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, with small amounts occasionally sold in B.C., Ontario and the U.S.
Between 1956 and 1996, Manitoba’s sugar beet production was second only to Alberta’s. In 1996, Manitoba farmers had 9,200 hectares planted in sugar beets. However, access to the United States, which had become the province’s principal market for beet sugar, was restricted in 1997. As a result, Manitoba’s only processing plant halted production.
Sugar beets return to Ontario
Ontario accounted for more than two-thirds of the Canadian sugar beet area from 1911 to 1931, according to Census of Agriculture data.
In southwestern Ontario, farmers returned to the crop in a minor fashion in 1996, planting 85 hectares. By 2001, this had expanded to just over 2,400 hectares, and in 2006, Ontario farmers planted 3,785 hectares, mostly for export to Michigan for processing.
The U.S., which uses tariffs on processed sugar imports to keep domestic sugar prices high, has both substantial sugar cane and sugar beet production.
However, because unprocessed sugar beet imports are not restricted, Ontario growers are tapping into this export market.
The future of sugar beets
In most parts of Canada, it is now cheaper to buy imported “raw sugar” in the semi-processed state than to produce our own. Since Canada has minimal tariffs on sugar and the world price of sugar is so low, over 90 per cent of our country’s refined sugar is now processed from sugar cane.
Although the area planted to sugar beets has been declining, there are still signs that their production has a future in Canada.
In 1998, the Taber processing plant invested in upgrades that increased its capacity by 50 per cent. In both Alberta and Ontario, scientists continue to improve crop production techniques.
High energy prices have also led to an increased demand for ethanol, which can be produced from sugar cane. Brazil, the world’s largest sugar exporter, produced 17 billion litres of ethanol in 2006, and this diversification of sugar cane has contributed to higher prices for sugar.
Ethanol can also be made from sugar beets. Groups in several provinces, including Quebec and Prince Edward Island, are looking into the economics of converting the crop to fuel.
Sugar beet seeded area (hectares), by province, 2006 and 2001
Source: Statistics Canada. “0” denotes either true zero or a value rounded to zero.