TWIN FALLS • When it comes to commercial sugar beet production, only the best will do.
Each year, the Snake River Sugarbeet Research and Seed Alliance receives seeds for new varieties of sugar beets to be tested. The alliance — a seed governing committee of growers, Amalgamated Sugar Co. staff and Snake River Sugar representatives — seeks to improve seed quality and performance for the growing region.
With thousands of acres of sugar beets planted in Idaho each year, seed companies continually vie for new varieties to be approved for use by Idaho growers.
“It’s a very competitive industry,” said Mark Duffin, executive director of the Idaho Sugarbeet Growers Association.
Beta Seed, Syngenta/Hilleshog, Crystal Beet Seed, Maribo Seed and SESVanderHave are some of the major companies that regularly send sugar beet seeds for testing. Each company has breeders who develop new varieties.
“We test the different varieties for disease resistance, quality, sugar content and recoverable sugars,” Duffin said.
The testing period for any new variety is three years, alliance Chairman Cody Bingham said. The alliance sets a threshold for the amount of sugar the beet must produce. Also, new varieties should provide resistance to diseases such as curly top — a virus that can be deadly to a crop, causing the leaves to yellow and curl up.
So far, about 20 varieties of sugar beet have been approved for Idaho growers — though some varieties do best in certain growing regions due to climate and soil content.
Almost 100 percent of all sugar beets grown in Idaho are Roundup Ready crops, which are resistant to the Roundup herbicide, Bingham said. The transition began in 2008 because the chemicals growers were using were dangerous to the laborers and were not effective.
“There aren’t that many chemicals that can be used on sugar beets for herbicides,” Bingham said.
The switch almost eliminated the need for other chemicals and hand labor, he said. All sugar beet companies have the ability to produce Roundup Ready seed.
This year, Bingham said, the alliance has planted eight Official Variety Trials in Idaho and Oregon. Each OVT plot averages about five acres and is a controlled portion on a participating grower’s land.
“Each OVT grows all the varieties,” Bingham said.
The trial varieties are planted at about the same time as the production sugar beets. The middle two rows of each variety — about half of what’s planted — are sent in for testing, while the others are harvested and sent to the factories.
Sugar Beet Origins
Historically, most of Idaho’s sugar beet seeds come from plants grown in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, Bingham said. That trend has shifted in recent years with the effort to reduce cross-pollination with other plants.
“A large portion of it is done in the Northwest region of the United States,” Bingham said.
The area includes Oregon, Arizona and the Columbia Basin in Washington and Canada.
Sugar beets have been used as a production crop for only about 200 years. The plant was bred in Germany at the end of the 1700s from a wild parent called the sea beet, which lives on the European seashores.
The sugar beet industry really developed under Napoleon, Duffin said. According to the Smithsonian Magazine article “Blame Napoleon for Our Addiction to Sugar,” prior to 1850 sugar was a commodity that only the wealthy could afford. Following the early-1800s British blockade of France’s trade routes with the Caribbean, Napoleon encouraged new research with sugar beets.
By 1815, more than 79,000 acres were put into production and beet sugar flooded the British market, the magazine reported.