Sugar beets farming story

 Sugar Beets

One of the major crops in his development of agriculture in Colorado was the sugar beet and it had a major impact on the economy and brought many different racial segments to the population.  These are the recollections I remember with great joy in thinking about the ways working in the sugar beet fields gave me some jobs and allowed me to meet countless other people who were in the sugar beet business. 

The sugar beet was first and foremost a cash crop which meant it would return more dollars per acre than most other crops…  The disadvantage was that it needed a factory to process the sugar from it.  Unless there was a factory the common farmer had no way to refine the sugar.

The Sugar Beet Factory in Brighton, Colorado was built in the early 1900s.  It was started by getting farmers to give some money to begin the construction and I am sure there were some wonderful stories about the faith and vision and foresight of the men and women who conceived the idea and made it happen.  There were factories in Germany and I am sure some of the German immigrant farmers could see the opportunity to have a crop that would give those cash…

The other factor was the railroad which went through Brighton on its connection between Denver and Laramie Wyoming.  That line was completed in 1872 and became a wonderful way for farmers to get their produce to the Denver market.

Cabbage avenue in Brighton is the road where farmers unloaded the horse drawn wagons to load cabbage on the railroad siding.  The next siding south of Brighton was on the Sherart farm and it was a place where farmers could meet the train with their milk cans, and other forms of produce.  The next siding was at Henderson so by the time the train reached Denver there were people and produce delivered by train every day.

The Sugar Beet Dump was a wonderful and exciting structure for a young boy to explore and play around.  It was a structure built of wood timbers that was as long as a football field.  The bridge like structure was built so a team of horses could pull the wagon up high enough so the sugar beets could be dumped into the railroad car.  That was a tremendous labor saving thing for the farmer who could simply stand and watch while his beets would be dumped into the railroad car.  It was a lot easier than scooping them off by hand into a pile.

Of course in the big middle of the harvest there were not enough rail cars with special bottom dump unloading to handle all the beets that would be delivered so sometime we had to pile the beets by hand at the pile site at the Northway beet dump.  There was a scale big enough to weigh the wagon load of beets and of course a dump master worked in the scale house.  He would have a record of the loaded weight with the name of the farmer, the day and time of the delivery and then a tare weight after the wagon was unloaded.

The scale house was a very important place to get the local news and place to exchange greeting with other farmers who had shoveled their beets onto the horse drawn wagons.  We had a special fork to shovel beets from the pile in the field to the wagon.  The tines in the fork were about ¼ inch in diameter and almost 2 feet long and the shape of the fork was like a big scoop shovel.  The tines had a bigger knob on the end and were blunt so they would not puncture or enter the beets. 

The reason we used a fork instead of a shovel was to let as much dirt and dirt clods fall back on the field.   The Sugar Company does not want to buy dirt along with the beets.  When the beets are dumped from the truck a tare bucket is inserted into the stream of falling beets and a sample of 6 to 10 beets and the dirt that is with them is collected.

Every truckload of beets is sampled and the percentage of dirt on the sample is made as well as a percent of sugar that is in the beet.  The tare weight is deducted from the total scale weight and the price of the load of beets is determined by the percent of sugar in the beets.

A skilled sugar beet shoveler was a person who had to be strong and athletic and willing to really work.  I worked in the harvest right after I got home from the army and considered the day that I put fifty tons of beets over the scale in one day to be a great accomplishment.

Of course I had a truck and not a team of horses and I cheated.  I had a load ready the night before and I was the first one at the scale when it opened in the morning and was one of the last truckloads at the scale that night. I have misplaced the note the scale master wrote for me giving me proof that I was able to do it.  I was very pleased with myself and loved the hard work.

Sometimes the farmer was unable to get his team to pull the wagon up the ramp that led to the top.  Then when the mechanism that lifted the wagon box to dump the beets into the railroad car would make some strange and loud noises so it would spook the horses so there were often bad accidents at the sugar beet dump.  I have great admiration for the skills in training the teams by those early farmers.  The farmer loved his team and they understood specific commands.  Whoa meant to stop.  It was also a command to stand firm.  The first few times the wagon driver would get down and go to the front of the team and stand there and be talking to the horses while the terrific noise happened behind them.  When the horses realized their master was there and they were safe the subsequent trips over the dump were uneventful except the down ramp was much steeper than the up ramp so it took skill to keep the wagon from hurting the team.

When the harvest was over there were a few farmers who would hire themselves and their team to load the beets from the pile back on to the wagon and then take the wagon over the dump.  They were paid by the weight they moved over the dump a man could make very good wages in that day and time if he had a good team and was willing to do the strenuous job of scooping beets all day.  In a day when one dollar was a good day’s wages the realization that you could put 50 tons of beets over the dump in a day meant you were a top wage earner.  And of course the extra income probably meant you could send a son to college. 

Raising the beets required a lot of hand labor.  The sugar beet seed was a cluster of seeds so the beets came up in a bunch.  If the bunch was allowed to grow it would not develop the big beets that yielded the best weight so the seed cluster was broken in an attempt to get single seeds.  Then the beets were planted about twice as thick as the intended crop.  This meant the tiny growing beets needed to the thinned by hand.  The beet thinning job was usually done by migrant Mexican laborers.  They would go through the fields on their hands and knees and chop the unneeded beets out with short handled hoe.

After the beets were thinned they were cultivated with a horse drawn device that pulled knives or shovel like blades through the dirt to kill any weeds that may have sprouted and come up with the beet.  The same people who thinned the beets would be hired to go though the fields with a hoe perhaps two or three time in the growing season. 

The second cultivation made a ditch in the row between the beets.  Colorado does not have adequate rainfall to make a crop of sugar beets so unless they are irrigated the crop would probably not grow enough to pay for the harvest.  Today most of the crops are watered with a sprinkler so the old method of making a ditch by every row is no longer needed.  Before we had sprinklers it was another hand labor expense.  Beets cost a lot of money to raise and harvest.  All the hand labor had to be included in the cost. 

The careful farmer usually cultivated at least three and sometimes 4 times as the beets are growing.  The cultivation was to control the weeds.  As the beet leaves grew large enough so the tractor or horses could not go through without damaging the crop that was the last time through until harvest.

The harvest was also a very labor intensive operation.  The farmer had a beet puller which was pulled by horses and it consisted of two small plows that were set about 5 inches apart and these two plows were pulled through the field and as they went they lifted the beets out of the ground enough so the workers who followed the beet puller could grab the tops and lift the beets out of the ground.  The  would grab a beet top from a beet in each hand and then bang them together so they would knock the dirt off and then they would lay them back down in the same row.  Then would do the same thing with the next row except this time they would lay the second row of pulled beets on top of the first.  There was a specific order for the way each set of rows was prepared for the beet toppers.

There were 6 rows involved with each strip down the field.  When the beets were pulled and placed in the row there were 3 rows in each piled row and the 3 empty rows between the two piles of beets with the tops still on were ready for the toppers.  But in order to make a better landing spot for the topped beets the farmer and the team would drag a V Shaped road grader type of float between the two big rows of piled beets.  This gave the topper a place to throw the beets he topped that was smooth and had no big clods of dirt that would be forked onto the truck with the beets.

The topper would straddle the row of piled beets and pick them up with a spiked hook on the end of his topping knife.  Then he would grab the beet with one hand and lift the hook on the knife out of the beet and raise the knife up on the air and then with a downward swing cut the top off the beet he was holding in his hand and then throw the beet into the smoothed area made by the V shaped drag had made a nice place to put the topped beets.

The beet loader would be able to scoop the beets into his fork and then throw them into the wagon.  The horses would wait for the command to pull the wagon to the next pile and the man who was loading the wagon would tell the team when to move forward.

I loved the beet harvest.  Even though the work was very strenuous it was late fall when we began so it often froze during the night and we may even have a light snow so we would work hard enough to keep warm.  There is a certain joy in learning to do the heavy work with a rhythm and balance so it became a skilled exercise. 

I didn’t top many beets but it was actually a fun type of work if you got good at it. You picked up the beet you were going to top with the spike on the end of your topping knife and grabbed it with the other hand.  Then you lift the spike off the beet and swing the knife up and then down with enough force to remove the top with one swing.

 When you mastered the moves and got your coordination into a habit pattern it almost resembled a dance.  It was fun to watch a good topper move down the row. The wages for all the jobs connected with the crop were piece work.  I other words you were paid for what you got done.  The price for thinning beets was paid by the acre.  A different price was paid for hoeing because the hoeing with long handled hoes was not as difficult. The topping was paid by the ton of beets hauled.

It was a joy to watch a good beet topper and they could keep up a rapid pace hour after hour.  At least the spike on the end of the topping knife allowed then to pick up the beet without having to stoop down to get it and they could really do a lot of beets in a day.

We had a small 3 room house for the beet labor.  There was a hand pump well.  No electricity.  There was a stove that worked to keep the house warm at night and an outhouse for the toilet.  We tried to get the same family year after year and they often returned to Mexico for the winter and would come back in the spring.  They could and did eat the beets and the beet tops like spinach.  They were allowed to pick all the corn they wanted to eat and sometimes we would have a potato patch and they could dig all the potatoes they needed.

While the house wasn’t much it was often better than the one they had in Mexico. They did not pay any rent.  They might have some of their family working for other farms but there was no real contract except they were sure to get paid when each job was completed.

The farmer usually did not understand Spanish so the worker had to learn at lest enough English to become able to function.  The children were always accepted into the local schools where the kids would learn to speak English and they in turn would help their parents learn to understand.  Sometimes the only school the Mexican kids got was the short time they were here when school was in session but many of them had enough determination to become educated enough to go on to at least finish some schooling. 

If they were born here the parents would be sure to register them so they would become American citizens.  Many of the finest segment of the Mexican decent came here as beet workers and assimilated into the citizenry very well.  When my children went to school many of their classmates had grandparents who came from Mexico.

The bottom line is that the sugar beet crop needed the Mexican workers. 

During World War II we had some German Prisoners of war who were allowed to be hired by the local farmers.  I wasn’t here to know how that worked but many of them never returned to Germany because they could see more opportunity for themselves here than if they returned back home. 

At the time the renter my dad had to farm our place was a German immigrant so that was a fortunate thing for the German prisoner.  He even took them into his home and they actually lived as a part of his family.  I am sure they were very glad they had surrendered and gotten captured by the American army.  They never had been able to have it so good in their homeland.

The financing resulting from raising beets was a very important part of living in Colorado.  Most of the farm expense was a credit type of business and much of the operating expense was funded by the supplier of the tools and fuel by the merchants and they were paid when the beet checks were issued.  The beet checks were paid two or three times a year and one of the major checks would be paid on the last of October.

If I get to it the next installment about the beet crop will be the story about the beet check that was written on the 31st of October.  Unfortunately the stock market had crashed on the 29th so there is a complicated story which may give you an idea of what the world was like during the great depression. 

Anyone who lives through the days of the depression has a very great respect for the value of money and the importance of saving and tithing a portion of the income for the Lord’s work.  I watch in horror and amazement when I see the moral deterioration of our people who are raised without being exposed to the Ten Commandments…………..

More later.

One Response to “Sugar beets farming story”

  1. Wow, I grew up in Brighton surrounded by the farming industry and really didn’t know all that much about the beet industry. I guess by the 1970’s the sugar beet industry had begun to dry up. I do remember the huge beet pile right along 85, but by that time I believe the actual processing was no longer being done in the Brighton plant.
    Thanks for your perspective Dr. Scott.

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