From the Archives: The Quandry of the Sugar Beets

January 31, 2008 | 14 comments
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I think that I have finally isolated the great symbol of a recent set of intellectual and spiritual quandaries that I have found myself working through of late. I am not talking about polygamy, Adam-God, or blood atonement. I have in mind an even more challenging remnant of our past: sugar beets.

Sugar beets are beets from which can be distilled sugar. (Hence the name.) The actually account for a fair amount of the sweeteners used in the United States, corn syrup being the other big one. Furthermore, Mormons have been into sugar beets in a big way for a long time. In his quest for potential cash crops for the Mormon commonwealth, Brigham Young hit upon the idea of growing sugar beets, which at the time were an exotic, cutting edge agricultural technology. Apparently getting the sugar out of the beets is a rather complicated process. Brigham sent John Taylor on a mission to France to get the necessary technology and Mormons spent the rest of the 19th century trying to grow sugar beets in the soil of Utah and south-eastern Idaho. Initially, the alkaline soil chemically changed the beets, messing up the French technology, but Brigham ? and later John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Lorenzo Snow ? persisted. Cooperatives were set up. New methods were developed, and in the end the sugar beet took its place in the pantheon of the Inter-Mountain West’s staple crops. Today, Church owned farms continue to grow sugar beets.

At this point, I am sure that you ? gentle reader ? are yawning. For crying out loud! What is so interesting ? let alone disturbing ? about sugar beets. My problem comes from the fact that strictly speaking, it doesn’t make any sense to have sugar beets. You’ll notice that none of the sugar you buy in the store comes from sugar beets. It all comes from sugar cane, mostly grown in Hawaii or the Caribbean. Sugar-beet sugar, which is of an inferior quality, is used in “industrial” products, e.g. soda, processed food, etc.. The reason that we have a sugar beet industry today is that the government protects it. We subsidize sugar beet farming and limit competition from sugar cane grown south of the border ? and south of the Florida keys.

The sugar beet seems to me like a good symbol of 19th-century Mormon communitarianism. It represented a melding of central economic planning (people were called on sugar beet missions), the melding of ecclesiastical and temporal concerns, and the attempt to establish an economically viable and independent Mormon community. In short, it seems to me that the sugar beet represents an important and in some ways halcyon moment in our history. It is all together a product of that dream of a very literal Mormon Zion. Like it or not, we all bear the marks on that communitarian dream in one shape or another.

Sugar beet production, however, was only remotely feasible because high transportation costs meant that Brigham’s Deseret would never have to compete with cheaper, higher-quality sugar from abroad. The same can be said of the communitarian Zion in general. It existed because of isolation and high barriers to entry. Initially these barriers were geographic. Later, Brigham tried to construct purely ideological barriers, like Zion’s Co-operative Mercantile Industries which was essentially a cartel of Mormon businesses against Gentile competitors. Not surprisingly, ZCMI ultimately failed to stem the falling barriers to entry into Mormondom. Despite flirting with Dannites, Avenging Angels, and out right war with the United States, ultimately Brigham ? and more dramatically Wilford Woodruff ? decided that they were not willing to resort to violence to set up permanent barriers around the kingdom. Hence the Zion of Deseret died.

The sugar beet survives precisely because the United States government has not fully taken the course adopted by Brigham and Wilford. It still uses the Coast Guard and the Customs Service ? in other words people with guns ? to keep out the sugar cane. In so doing it props up a hand full of farmers in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington by denying far poorer farmers in developing countries access to a lucrative market. It takes from the impoverished and gives to the lower middle class.

As should be clear, I think that the sugar beet industry should be taken out behind the barn and shot. Or more precisely, I think that it ought to pay its own way against sugar cane competition. This seems like a wiser and more just course to take. Yet, if I had my way yet another lingering institution of Brigham’s Zion would die.

There is much more at stake here than nostalgia. What is at stake is how I think social justice ought to be conceptualized. Do I opt for the individualist freedom that favors the sugar cane farmers or the lingering communitarian vision that favors the sugar beet farmers. By siding with liberalism and sugar cane against communitarianism and sugar beets, I feel as though I am on the other side of a gulf from Brigham and his Zion. It is a gulf that the Church, beginning with Brigham himself, seems to have crossed. Yet I am uncomfortable setting my back inevitably against the sugar beet past. I would like to salvage something of the communitarianism without paying the costs that the barriers upon which it depended ultimately created.

(Originally posted here)

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14 Responses to From the Archives: The Quandry of the Sugar Beets

  1. Russell Arben Fox on January 31, 2008 at 10:36 pm

    Sugar beets! They’re back! Oh, man, this was my favorite thread from 2004, Times and Seasons first full year of existence. Probably primarily because it was my first experience (followed by many subsequent experiences, glutton for punishment that I am) at having the intellectual crap beaten out of me by the patented, never yet defeated, Nate-and-Frank-free-trade-tag-team. Ah, good times.

  2. SusanS on January 31, 2008 at 11:08 pm

    I think of the first summer that your father and I were married. He returned each night encrusted with sugar–sugar beets, factory, Moses Lake (a Utah, Idaho wannabe).

  3. Lupita on January 31, 2008 at 11:11 pm

    But what would Dwight do with the family farm?

  4. John on February 1, 2008 at 12:12 am

    Did you have to pick beets as a kid? Seems there’s a little unresolved hostility here.

  5. Jim Cobabe on February 1, 2008 at 2:05 am

    A bit on history of Utah sugar production here.

    One of the original challenges of sugar beet production was a result of typically multiple seedling production. Each seed contained multiple embryos which sprouted into seedlings that would be too crowded for the development of optimal sugar content. The seedlings had to be carefully thinned by hand. Apparently the brethren judged that this labor intensive cultural operation lended itself well to Utah farms with big families and lots of hands filled with a hoe.

    Agricultural technology eventually overcame the multiple embryo problem, and beet thinning is no longer such a manual labor-intensive chore.

    Sugar beet production is certainly agriculturally viable, with our without subsidy, in part because sugar beets are well adapted for production in temperate climates, whereas cane sugar is primarily a tropical or sub-tropical. To say that the two cultural crops overlap in production is like asserting that the bannana market competes with apple production. But like every other agricultural endeavor in this country, factors other than agricultural predominate in determining the fitness and value of the crop.

    Beet sugar is extracted through a process that primarily employs chemical diffusion, not distillation. Although terms like “liquer” are sometimes used in reference to products of sugar production, these are not distillation byproducts. Hot water is used to dissolve soluble solids from the beets, yielding a dilute solution that is primarily dissolved sucrose.

    Organic chemists will generally point out that beet sugar and cane sugar have virtually identical chemical constituents, and that the difference is inconsequential — but apparently there are still many “sugar connoisseurs” who insist that they can tell the difference.

  6. manaen on February 1, 2008 at 4:41 am

    Sugar beets prompted one of my favorite silly romantic tag lines. C&H, the purveyors of unholy cane sugar, dueled with the local growers united under the U&I — for Utah & Idaho — banner. This competition led to young blades bantering with their their favorite squeezes, “What’s the best kind of sugar?” to be answered with “U/You and I, Sugar!”

  7. TMD on February 1, 2008 at 9:16 am

    Not to rain on your parade, but the fact is that it’s not sugar beet farmers who maintain the trade barriers against cane sugar, but the much more politically powerful sugar cane industry in the south, particularly in LA.

  8. Joel on February 1, 2008 at 10:44 am

    I have very mixed feelings about Mormon sugar beets. Without them I would probably never have been a part of the church. My Japanese great-grandparents settled in the area around Rexburg and Sugar City in Idaho at the turn of the twentieth century precisely because the labor intensive properties of sugar beet cultivation often required a workforce that came cheaply and were willing to perform the back-breaking labor of thinning and topping the beets. And it wasn’t just my great-grandparents that came to work in the beet fields. If you ask the majority of the Japanese American population in the church–at least in Utah and Idaho–most would have some connection in their family history to sugar beets.

    It seems ironic that a church policy created to hedge up the insularity of Mormon community ultimately created the economic forces that brought these outsiders to the Mormon corridor and eventually to church membership. Sugar beets also played a key role in the World War II internment of Japanese Americans. During the war, with the young men off fighting, farmers throughout the West begged the government to allow interned Japanese Americans to labor in their fields. Japanese American internees probably saved the sugar beet harvests during those war years providing the United States with an internal sugar source. At some level, I think it might be lingering memories of those war years that provide continued justifications for sugar beet subsidies.

  9. Frank McIntyre on February 1, 2008 at 11:21 am

    Russell, good times indeed!

    I recently heard a claim that, as of this month, sugar quotas were going to disappear. I am skeptical but intrigued.

  10. John Mansfield on February 1, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    My wife has a memory of sugar beets that is Mormon but not of Deseret. She speaks occasionally of the smell of the sugar beet mills in Bavaria that she walked by as a missionary.

  11. Ellis on February 1, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    I always thought the original attempts to make sugar failed because the sugar cartel in France had left something out of the formula, and that the sugar industry grew up and became successful much later. [The Kingdom of God or Nothing by Henry D. Taylor] There are also sugarbeets being grown in Michigan and Montana.

    I grew up eating U&I sugar. I guess now we get pure cane. I can’t tell any difference.

  12. Ellis on February 1, 2008 at 12:41 pm

    For an overview of sugar production in the United States, check out this article.

    http://www.rurdev.usda.gov/rbs/pub/sep06/ethanol.htm

  13. Kevinf on February 1, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    I spent many summers thinning beets on my Grandfather and Uncle’s farm in southern Idaho growing up. To think that now they can plant seedlings that don’t require thinning by hand is mind boggling. What would I have done for those summers, and where would I have earned my money? Blasphemy!

  14. Will Bagley on February 3, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    The beet goes on. My title was “Why Didn’t the Sugar House Make Sugar?”

    http://historytogo.utah.gov/salt_lake_tribune/history_matters/041501.html

    Here I buy into the party line that the beet biz was BY’s idea, but on thinking about it, I wonder if Taylor didn’t come up with the plan.

    Will Bagley

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