Sugar beets are a root crop, which are successfully grown in many areas of the world, including Asia, Europe, and North America. They are grown in these moderate climates due to their ability to tolerate frost. Although sugar beets have been grown in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba, the only remaining producers of sugar beets in Canada are in Alberta and Ontario.
In Canada, sugar beet seeds are typically planted at the end of April and the root is harvested in September of the same year. At planting time, a beet drill is attached to the back of a tractor, placing seeds in equal spaced rows. Sugar beets require approximately 50 centimetres of water over the growing season and are very sensitive to moisture levels. Irrigating crops too much can reduce the sugar content of the beets, and under irrigating can result in a smaller yield (number of beets produced).
Sugar beets are grown most successfully when incorporated into a crop rotation scheme (the successive planting of different crops on the same land). Farmers rotate their crops every four years to protect them from diseases and pests such as beetles, worms and grasshoppers. While the beets are growing, effective weed management is vital to sugar beet production. Weeds can cause significant losses in sugar beet yield and crop quality as they compete for light, water, and nutrients. Strategies to control the growth of weeds include the use of herbicides, specially developed for sugar beets, which will control the weeds without affecting the beets. Over the past 10 years, the amount of herbicide being applied has been greatly reduced by applying very low rates when the beets (and weeds) are quite small. The herbicides are applied in a narrow band directly over the row, which is a more environmentally friendly practice than over the entire field.
Cultivation techniques and material inputs must be adapted to the climate and soil types of the region. The land, for example, must have little stone content, and maximum yields are obtained only when spacing between rows and seeds are optimized. It is also important that the correct types of fertilizers be applied at an appropriate rate to ensure good yields.
When mature, a sugar beet is an off-white colour, and looks similar to a turnip. In southern Alberta, the sucrose content is almost 19% by weight, depending on the variety. Like sugar cane, sugar content can also vary from year to year and in different geographical locations. For example, sucrose content of sugar beets in Europe is closer to 18% due to climate differences. While sugar content by weight is greater in sugar beets compared to sugar cane (14%), the yield of sugar beet per hectare is lower (on average, 50 tonnes/hectare), as is the yield of sugar (6 tonnes on average).
For more information on Sugar Beets in Canada, please see That Beet is Sweet (pdf) by Statistics Canada.