By Erika Mathieu
Westwind Weekly News
Executive director for the Alberta Sugar Beet Growers (ASBG), Melody Garner-Skiba said, “you are standing in the corner of Canada, where we produce the only source of a hundred per cent domestic sugar. There is no other place in Canada that grow sugar beets and refine it into sugar, so I like to think this is a pretty sweet oasis,” said Garner-Skiba.
With nearly 200 other farm families working under ASBG, Gary Tokariuk is a multi-generational farmer and part of the sugar beet farming network responsible for producing 125,000 tons of sugar, or 275,577,828 pounds of sugar, grown on 28,000 acres of land across Alberta. Tokariuk, who also serves as the president of the ASBG said his family farm, now 170 acres, was established in 1928. “It’s six years away from (being) a century farm, which I am really proud of,” Tokariuk said.
The economic impact of the sugar beet industry in Alberta translates to roughly $248 million in GDP contributions and employs over 2,100 people.
As the first piece of equipment, the defoliating tractor, approached the tour group. Attached to the machine were three drums which shear off the top green parts of the beet, six rows at a time. Following the defoliating tractor, a large digger followed moments behind to extract the intact beets from the ground and sort them between a large transport truck and a storage cage. The machines can defoliate and dig around 17 acres of sugar beets in a 12-hour workday.
“If everything goes well, those 28,000 acres, will take us about 14 to 21 days, depending on weather,” to harvest the crops across the province.
Tokariuk’s family began farming sugar beets in 1946 on roughly 30 acres. In the past 76 years, the family has grown to 170 acres in 2022. The prime time for harvesting the high-value, the biannual crop is October but Tokariuk said, “this year was an interesting year.”
“We started seeding on April 28,” and nearly one month later on May 24, the farm saw 115km/hour winds, leading to an uncharacteristic soil erosion caused by the strong winds. “It just pains me to see land blow,” said Tokariuk adding, “in the 36 years that I’ve been farming, this was the first time I lost beets to wind,” making for a tough start to the season.
Although sugar beet farmers see the profits from the actual tonnage of sugar, there are many uses for the various byproducts. Garner-Skiba said, “some of our farmers will actually collect the leaves and feed them to their cattle. So that will be livestock feed.”
While there is a clear benefit in returning the leafy organic matter back into the soil, Garner-Skiba said ASBG is entering into their third year of testing, working with a food processing plant located in Leduc, to further explore options to extract an abundant enzyme found in sugar beet leaves called RuBisCO, a high-value, plant-based protein.
“We’re actually currently testing to see how we can extract that Rubisco, because that would be a value-added product that we could potentially extract for human and livestock feed (…) We’ve never done anything with the leaves, so this could be another potential revenue stream.” More research is still needed to determine which stages and age of the sugar beet leaf would be most efficient for alternative feed use.
“We still have lots of work around this project, but it is something that could have potential,” she added.
Garner-Skiba said harvest typically begins in early September, “just to get the factory going,” but said 2022 has been unusual insofar as the warm temperatures have forced several heat shutdowns during the primary harvest so far this harvest season. The warmer autumn weather will cause issues for beets stored in piles if the temperature does not remain below an 18-degree celsius threshold.
To mitigate temperature concerns, Garner-Skiba said another research project is currently underway between Lantic Sugar, ASBG, and Lethbridge College. “We’re actually trying different ways of aerating the piles, so that we can try to get consistent airflow, to try to keep them at a consistent temperature,” she explained. Processing typically concludes by the end of January, a timeline which can be challenging given the region’s Chinook weather.
One of the misconceptions about the industry is that the finished sugar product is bleached.
“We don’t bleach the sugar, the sugar beet is white naturally,” said Garner-Skiba. To an untrained eye, the intact sugar beets look exactly like other varieties of beets. In tasting the raw, unrefined product, there is no mistaking the sweetness. It looks and smells vegetal, and is light, crunchy and sweet, like a candied parsnip.
With COVID-19 bringing to light a myriad of supply issues, and a renewed focus on domestic product production, the demand for increased growing capacity is front and centre for the ASBG.
Garner-Skiba said, “Our growers want to grow more acres. But we are limited by factory capacity and the reason why we’re limited by factory capacity is farmers, like Gary are competing against imported raw cane sugar that is brought in.”
Canada currently only supplies eight per cent of the domestic sugar market; the remaining 92 per cent is raw cane sugar and then slightly refined,
Garner-Skiba said the challenge for ASBF is that these farmers operate without subsidies. “There’s no sugar policy here, but all of our main competitors have a sugar policy,” and added farmers operating in Guatemala or Brazil receive subsidies. “There is no impetus for investment in the two refiners in
“Our (ASBG) farmers are already competing with the subsidized farmers,” importing from other countries.
In terms of moving forward with a more equitable policy Garner-Skiba said, “COVID brought that to light and that’s really what drove this whole conversation around our domestic sugar policy home was when COVID hit. And we saw shelves, going bare in certain places, and Canadians started talking about food security. They started talking about domestic production being able to grow more and produce more at home.”
Roughly 35 years ago, there was a push to create a more equitable domestic sugar policy, but the changes didn’t come to fruition.
“If you look at the government of Alberta’s investment into expanding irrigation acres down here and what the irrigation districts are doing: we can do more here, we can grow more here.”
A push for more production would necessitate increased refining infrastructure capacity to keep up, but Garner-Skiba said the ASBG has been in talks with the Premier of Manitoba and Ag Minister to discuss reopening a plant which was closed after Canada lost some access to the U.S. market.
Garner-Skiba said, “when we look at (Canada’s) environmental and track records compared to some of those other countries (…) here’s no slave labour. There’s nothing like that. We don’t talk about the underbelly,” of some imported commodities, such as raw sugarcane. With nearly $950 million committed to bringing more irrigated acres to producers in Canada in the coming years, there is hope a domestic sugar policy is on the horizon for Canadian producers.
To make sure you are buying 100 per cent pure beet sugar, look for the black stamp on the Rogers sugar bag beginning with “22”.