TWIN FALLS — Eight months ago, Kirsten Burns had never ridden in a tractor-trailer. Let alone driving one of the longest, heaviest trucks on the road.
But on a Monday afternoon in March, the 22-year-old former hotel clerk parked her car at Transystems’ project trailer just north of Amalgamated Sugar Co.’s Paul plant. Outside the trailer, Burns’ truck, No. 17071, sat while the prior shift driver squeegeed mud from its headlights and reflector strips.
Two other drivers walked into the office to check in — or out.
“Are you going to work or going home?” one asked the other.
“This is my home,” the other replied.
For more than a century, southern Idaho’s sugar beet industry has supported growers and grocers, scientists and factory workers.
Over the past year, the Times-News has followed those who make their livings from Idaho’s sugar beet crop. We’ve followed Murtaugh grower Ron Hepworth’s crop through planting, growing and harvest. Today, we finish the four-part “Sugar Bowl” series with the annual trucking and slicing campaign that transforms beets to fine white sugar, then sends it out the factory doors.
Every fall, sugar beet growers have harvested their sweet crop and hauled it by wagons or 10-wheelers to sugar beet receiving stations around the valley, where the beets chilled while waiting their turns to be sliced.
As the 2016-17 sugar beet slicing campaign winds down — and while Hepworth waits for fields to dry out enough for planting — Transystems is hauling the last of the 2016 sugar beets to Amalgamated’s three plants. The sugar produced there each year brings in $750 million to $900 million in revenue.
There’s a lot riding on Burns’ truck.
At Transystems’ depot, Burns inspected her truck as passers-by wished her a good morning. At 3:15 p.m., it was the beginning of her 12-hour shift hauling beets to the largest sugar beet factory in the world.
“I started this because I wanted to see if I could do it,” Burns said. “It’s the most satisfying job I’ve ever had.”
Burns started her truck driver’s training with Transystems in August, got her commercial driver’s license and signed on with the company in September. She rode with other drivers to get a feel for what the work involved, then started driving the early sugar beet harvest.
“I didn’t realize what drivers went through,” she said. “I will never drive my little car the same again.”
Burns is project manager Coral Torix’s star pupil.
“Kirsten drove through every horrendous snowstorm and over icy roads without complaining,” Torix said.
Burns, who grew up in Filer but lives in Twin Falls, drives about 100 miles round-trip to work every day, plus the miles she puts on her truck.
Drivers work four days then get two days off. Traffic is heavy at the start of her shift, but by mid-evening things start to slow down.
“Like anything else, this gets better with practice,” she said as she pulled up to the stop sign at Transystems’ exit. When an opening appeared in the traffic, Burns pulled her empty trailers onto the road and headed south toward Cassia County.
Transystems trucks follow specific paths to and from the beet dumps, determined by road weight limits. Frost law restrictions were in effect on the way to the receiving station at Kenyon, an old railroad siding southwest of Burley.
“We’ll be going pretty slow to the beet dump,” she said. The 75,000-pound truck — even empty — is a strain on the roads.
“It’s amazing how much you see when you’re going slower,” Burns said. As she headed south on 400 West, the Kenyon beet pile became visible. At 700 South, an arrow pointing east shows drivers where to turn to reach the pile.
“We’ll be hauling out of here for a while,” she said as she looked over the size of the pile.
Burns pulled in and waited for another Transystems truck to load. The operator of the front-end loader dumped one last bucket of sugar beets, then signaled the driver with a short beep of his horn. The driver pulled away from the pile, and Burns pulled her truck into position. Within minutes, her two trailers were full and the operator again sounded the horn. Burns grabbed her radio mic and wished the operator a good day as all 105 feet of her truck pulled away from the beet pile.
She radioed the depot to say she was leaving the Kenyon beet dump.
As she drove toward 400 West, Burns saw an empty Transystems truck approaching the intersection. She slowed down to give the other driver room to make the turn ahead of her.
Drivers look out for each other, she said.
Within minutes, Burns crossed U.S. 30 onto Bedke Boulevard and radioed in her new location. Soon she crossed the Snake River, then made her way back to the Paul plant.
Another arrow pointed the way to the flume, where sugar beets are dumped from the bellies of the Transystems trailers and transported into the factory.
The Paul factory has three lanes over the flume. Burns was directed into the far lane, and she positioned her trailers over a giant hopper. In seconds, her trailers were empty again and she was off on her next run.
At the Twin Falls sugar factory, the oldest of Amalgamated’s plants, Transystems fills the flume one truck at a time.
“This technology is a lot older than the Paul plant,” said Jorge DeVarona, plant manager in Twin Falls.
In this factory, Amalgamated employs 324 people with a payroll of about $20 million. Here, the flume pushes a steady flow of sugar beets toward a washer that removes mud and rocks from the beets. The flume then moves the crop into a closed system inside the factory.
The beets are sliced into thin strips called cossettes, which are sent to the diffuser. There the cossettes are cooked to extract sugar from the pulp, which is pressed and dried for livestock feed.
The raw juice is sent to a carbonation tank where milk of lime and carbon dioxide are used to purify the juice. A series of operations clarifies, filters and removes minerals from the raw juice, leaving a lemonade-like liquid called “thin juice.”
The thin juice is then concentrated by evaporation into “thick juice,” resembling molasses. Some of the thick juice is stored in tanks to be processed later, but the bulk of the thick juice is seeded to create sugar crystals. The crystals are grown to a certain size, then spun in a centrifuge to separate liquid from the crystals.
The sugar crystals are dried and cooled, then packaged and shipped, or shipped from the plant in bulk by railroad and trucks. The thick juice set aside in the tank farm is processed after the slicing campaign is over.
New growing season
The stability of sugar beet income is a key reason Ron Hepworth’s family has been able to live a lifestyle tied to the land instead of taking second jobs in town.
Ron’s family has seen many changes since the planting of the 2016 crop. One daughter married and another is expecting a baby — the Hepworths’ sixth grandchild — in October. One of Ron’s sons-in-law earned a doctorate in material science and engineering, and another will teach school at Murtaugh next year.
But Ron, 47, and his wife, Shala, 45, are starting anew, too.
Ron’s father, Ray Hepworth, sold the farm he had leased to Ron and Shala since they were married 28 years ago. Hoping to build a home closer to Murtaugh, the couple will continue to farm other crops but reluctantly sold some of their sugar beet shares. This year, they’ll grow only 132 acres of beets for Amalgamated Sugar and the grower cooperative that owns it, Snake River Sugar Co.
“We’re doing things a little differently this year,” Ron said.
While he was planting malt barley last month, Snake River Sugar Co. was sampling ground he grew beans on last year and preparing to make fertilizer recommendations based on the results of those soil samples.
“We’ll fertilize the ground, then run a roller harrow over the field to incorporate it into the soil,” Ron said late last month. “That’ll level it off and break up any clods.”
With beet seed in the ground, Ron is looking forward to his 29th sugar beet crop. By now, his 28th is on its way to the makers of ketchup, doughnuts and ice cream.