The Decline and Fall of the Utah Sugar Beet Empire

Where does your sugar come from?

Americans eat more sugar than any other nation, consuming close to 11 million metric tons of the sweet stuff annually (that’s somewhere around 150 pounds of sugar per person per year – 100 years ago, we ate closer to 18 pounds per person per year). The US alone produces over 8 million metric tons of sugar each year, and the largest sugar producer is…

Minnesota, eh?

Not the place many of us might imagine our sugar coming from, and tropical Florida and Louisiana are top contenders in sugar cane production, but more than half of US sugar actually comes from sugar beets (pictured below).

Sugar Beet Before Topping LOC

Utah is no longer even on the map for sugar production, but for much of the twentieth century, Utah was an important sugar beet producer.

Someone recently asked me, where did the sugar beets go?

After all, Idaho – literally within spitting distance of some of the Utah towns that once ran on the sugar beet industry – is still an important producer of sugar. Some parts of Utah, like the “Sugar House” neighborhood in Salt Lake City, still bear record of their association with the sugar industry. And the sugar beet is the official Utah state historic vegetable. Who knew that was a thing?

So, here’s a short-but-sweet 😉 history of sugar in Utah.

First of all, y’all know that sugar has an ugly history, right? European (and later American) sugar cravings drove perhaps the most brutal slavery-based industry from the 1500s to the 1800s, with generations of enslaved West Africans working and dying on sugar plantations, mostly in the Carribean.

By the 1800s, with international wars and slave revolts disrupting the sugar industry, European scientists developed a process for extracting sugar from beets. Abolitionists and human rights advocates were quick to promote beet sugar (while pro-slavery factions shunned it). Beet sugar also had an economic advantage because sugar beets grow in a much wider variety of climates than sugar cane, meaning France, Russia, Germany, and the non-tropical portions of the United States could all develop their own sugar industries instead of relying on imports.

By 1850, Brigham Young had led the Mormon pioneers to the relative isolation of Utah and was interested in being as self-sufficient as possible. Thus, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints backed an experimental sugar beet factory in Sugar House. It failed miserably, producing a nasty syrup not even independent-minded Brigham Young thought edible.

It took a few decades before American factories got the hang of beet sugar, but by the end of the 1800s, with the social and financial backing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company had factories throughout Utah, and sugar beets became an important part of Utah’s economy. Sugar beets required back-breaking manual labor, but large Utah families had plenty of children to work in the fields. Their work was supplemented by Native Americans displaced by pioneer settlements and later by Latino refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution. The worldwide economic disruptions of World War I saw the peak of the sugar industry in Utah when the state was one of the country’s top sugar producers (like the factory in Lewiston, Utah, pictured below – that’s a big pile of beets!).

Sugar beets in Lewiston LOC

From there, it was a slow downhill slide. An agricultural depression followed WWI, with prices falling into a slump after the previous war-time demand, and after that came the Great Depression. At the same time, beet leafhoppers spread a blight in Utah that damaged crops and led some factories to move away from the state.

The Utah sugar beet industry struggled on, eventually finding a blight-resistant strain of beets, and in World War II, Utah was still a major US sugar producer. Many detained Japanese Americans worked in the sugar beet fields of Utah to keep up with wartime production.

Following World War II, the sugar beet industry saw a number of technological changes that made sugar processing faster and more efficient. Ironically, this would lead to the end of large-scale commercial sugar beets in Utah. The main companies that bought Utah sugar beets, U&I (Utah-Idaho Sugar Company) and Amalgamated Sugar Company, had both started in Utah but expanded their production to Idaho and the Pacific Northwest and eventually moved their headquarters out of state. They faced several antitrust actions by the federal government as well as competition with low-cost cane sugar from overseas during the mid-1900s, which strained their resources. Also during this time, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began selling its interests in the sugar companies.

So, when it came time to update factories, the sugar companies invested in those in Idaho and Oregon. One by one, the outdated Utah factories shut down, with the last one in Garland, Utah, shutting down in 1979. It was not cost-effective for Utah farmers to ship their sugar beets out of state, so most switched to other crops, and Utah fell off the sugar-producing map.

For most of Utah, sugar beets had never been an ideal crop. The soil is too alkaline, the growing season too short, and the labor too intensive. The fact that Utah enjoyed nearly a century of sweet success is a testament to the stubborn self-sufficiency of Utah’s farmers.

Utah’s official contemporary state vegetable is the sweet onion. And that’s a thing, too, because when it came time to vote on state vegetable, the onion may be important now, but the sugar beet-proponents refused to back down on giving some kind of recognition to the crop that had been so important to Utah’s economy for most of the 1900s.

Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress OWI-FSA collection (public domain).

Sources: U.S. Sugar Industry Association; American Sugar Alliance; New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services; The Diabetes Council; Donald W. Meyers, “Rebirth of former sugar plant is sweet news for Toppenish,” Yakima Herald (Yakima, Washington); Leonard J. Arrington, Beet Sugar in the West;  Twila Van Leer, “Sugar Becomes a Sweet Success,” Deseret News; “Sugar Beets!” Lewiston-North Cache Valley Historical Board; Leonard J. Arrington, “The Sugar Industry in Utah,” Utah History Encyclopedia.

 

 

 

 

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