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Sugar Beet Production

Water Works Wonders
A History of the White, Wilson, McMahon,
River Junction School Districts Pages 95 - 97
by Leland Buff

The first sugar beet factory in Canada was built in Raymond in 1903 by Jesse Knight and was called the Knight Sugar Co. Under the terms of their federal government charter they were to operate for 12 years.

To encourage farmers to grow beets, the federal government paid $1 per 100 pounds of sugar produced. Because of a shortage of irrigation water and always uncertain weather conditions, farmers could not raise sufficient beets to be profitable for them or the factory. As a result, Knight Sugar Co. closed down in 1914.

After World War I, irrigation possibilities increased and grain prices declined. Farmers then petitioned for a second factory. The Raymond and Magrath Boards of Trade got the Utah & Idaho Sugar Company (U & I) interested. Boards of Trade in other towns in the south also got involved.

U&I demanded the following:

1.That trial plots be grown in 1923 and 1924 to determine yields and sugar content. 2.That during 1924, 6000 acres of summer fallow be prepared for the 1925 sugar beet crop. 3. That at least 6000 acres be contracted in 1925.

These conditions having been met, construction on a new factory was begun in March 1925 and completed in time to process the 1925 crop. The factory was called Canadian Sugar Factories Ltd. More than 7000 acres were contracted throughout southern Alberta that year. Beet dumps were built in various locations and were often named after a local grower who had signed a large contract. Thus our beet dump at the junction of highway #4 and what is now McNally Road was named Stewart after Bill Stewart who farmed 1 mile north of the dump.

Of this 7000 plus acres, 5394 acres were harvested which produced an average yield of 6.9 tons per acre. Total sugar production was 3422 tons of sugar.

1927 was a tough year. Many acres of beets had to be dug out of the snow. Beets were raised with the usual troubles in 1930. Beet harvest was in full swing. Beets were being piled at the Raymond factory in a pile about 7 feet high. On October 14th a bitterly cold steady wind came up from the north and blew day and night for 3 days. When the wind finally quit, there was 3 inches of solid frozen ground with no snow cover. When the ground thawed out the harvest was rushed and beets were stored in this big pile. In about 2 weeks the pile started to heat and rot and settled down to about 2 feet of rotten beets, not fit for anything. This proved to be the undoing of Canadian Sugar Factories Ltd.

In the spring of 1931 the factory was sold to Rogers Brothers British Columbia Sugar Refining Co. They continued to operate under the name of Canadian Sugar Factories Ltd.

Under the terms of the early contracts with Canadian Sugar Factories Ltd. all growers were docked from their cheques a freight charge of 50 cents per ton regardless of whether the beets were hauled to a dump or directly to the factory. The Sugar Beet Growers Association had been trying to have this charge removed and threatened to truck all beets directly to the factory. In 1934 they closed the Stewart beet dump and all the beets were trucked to the factory. It was quite a job but proved it was possible. The next year this deduction was deleted from the contracts.

Expansion and modernization took place at the Raymond plant and in 1936 a second plant was constructed in Picture Butte. World War II then intervened and no more expansion was undertaken.

Since the start of the industry all seed had come from Germany and Holland. When World War II broke out this supply was cut off. The Lethbridge Experimental Farm and Canadian Sugar Factories approached me to raise beet seed. The Experimental Farm had saved small beets which had to be planted by hand. They grew to about 6" tall and bushy. When the seed was ripe the seed stalks had to be cut by hand and tied into bundles and stooked. They were then threshed and yielded about 1800 lbs. of seed. This was the first sugar beet seed ever grown in north America. (I understand sugar beet seed was also grown at Stirling the following year. I. Dogterom) Seed was later grown in B.C. where small beets could be left in the ground over winter.

A lot of work had to be done with beet seed. The old style seed would produce up to 30 plants from one seed which then had to be thinned by hand down to one plant then left in the row about 12' apart. Today seed has been developed which yields only one plant per seed. They are planted about 6" apart so no thinning is required and weeds are controlled with chemicals instead of relying on a crew of laborers to hand hoe the beets several times during the growing season.

In 1947 the Taber factory was built to slice 1800 tons per day. Today it has a capacity of 4500 tons per day. Raymond and the Picture Butte plants were closed and all beets are now processed in Taber.

Growers have always had a strong association with such early leaders as Phil Baker, Lolivee Jensen and Burns Wood. Strong representatives from our district were Bill Andrews and Charlie Parry.

Raising beets is much easier at the present time that it was when I started in 1925. Beets had to be dug, topped and loaded into wagons by hand. Eventually loaders were developed by the factory to load beets into trucks. Today manual labor has been replaced by machines. Beets are defoliated and dug up to 6 rows at a time and elevated directly into trucks. Large numbers of acres can now be raised and yield has increased to over 30 tons per acre. In the old days we were paid $5 to $7 per ton. Now beets are about $40 per ton. It is an important crop for irrigated land. Sandy soil which is in great abundance in southern Alberta is best for this crop. As I write this it looks like the 1994 crop will be the biggest in history. There are rumors the factory will run until March.

Lethbridge Herald, July 7, 1908 Mr. Naykayama Leases Beet Lands Fifty men from the flowery kingdom will raise beets at Raymond.

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Mary Tollestrup