Sugar is sweet and so is Progress!

How could 2011 be a record year for sugar beet yields in Switzerland? Remember the picture I posted last May during the drought with my hand deep in a crack in a sugar beet field? And then many fields got a hard hail. Those beets seem to thrive on adversity. What saved them was a period of good rains in the nick of time and a long warm fall.

And this is supposed to produce a bumper crop? A sugar beet field in June, 2011.

We used to grow sugar beets in Switzerland, so I was quite interested to attend the annual meeting of the Eastern Switzerland Sugar Beet Growers. I had to report on the event for the Schaffhauser Bauer, but I also wanted to hear what has happened in the industry since we left it. A lot.

When I started farming on the Emmerhof in 1978 sugar beets were still thinned by hand with the hoe. I always enjoyed that job really – the whole family was out in the field, usually the weather was nice and I could get my first good tan. There were no motors running and we could talk as we worked. The harvest was less idyllic. Robert put the beets out with a one row harvester and it took forever. Frequently it was wet and with our heavy clay soils it was a real mess, with more dirt on the beets than left in the field, it seemed. Often we sat on the pile of beets and cleaned them by hand. There are a lot of beets in three hectares!

No hands touch the sugar beets anymore. Everything is mechanized and goes so much quicker and more efficiently.

Beets are seeded at the right distance now. Big six row harvesters do the job in a couple hours and the beets are trucked from the field to the factory. My neighbour says she doesn’t touch a beet anymore and is quite happy about that. I guess!
Continuing improvement in breeding has produced bigger beets with more sugar. What also helped is the introduction of Gaucho – an insecticide that is added to the beet seed. The environmentalists would like to see Gaucho removed again, which would be a blow for farmers.

The chairman of the meeting said the public needs to be informed why it is important for the Swiss farmer to produce sugar beets. I later asked him why – sugar beets put more oxygen into the air than trees do. Their place in the crop rotation improves the soil and breaks disease cycles. And sugar beets are one of the few crops Swiss farmers really make good money with. They’re sort of like canola for Canadian farmers.

The main attraction of the meeting was a talk by Hermann Painter, founder and CEO from ROPA Germany. ROPA designs and sells mostly harvesting equipment for sugar beets. Painter started small in the ‘70s, and now has subsidiary dealerships in France, Ukraine, Poland and Russia, and also sells into the USA and Canada. Those harvesters are a bit bigger than just six rows…Robert has decided he really wants to go out to the Ukraine now!

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