By Larry Campbell & Allan Cattanach
Editor’s Note: The American Society of Sugar Beet Technologists (ASSBT) held its 37th biennial meeting in Anaheim, Calif., from February 27 to March 2. During that meeting, ASSBT paused to celebrate its 75th anniversary as an organization.
To help recognize this milestone, two longtime ASSBT members — Larry Campbell and Allan Cattanach — compiled a history of the American Society of Sugar Beet Technologists. Campbell is sugarbeet research geneticist with USDA-ARS at Fargo, N.D. Cattanach, who is American Crystal Sugar Company’s general agronomist, wrapped up a two-year term as ASSBT president at the Anaheim meeting.
A modestly edited version of that history is provided here.
ASSBT members pause for a photo during their biennial meeting in 1948.
The need for a formal organization to facilitate communication among diverse facets of the beet sugar industry was recognized by participants in an informal group known as “The Sugar Beet Roundtable.” T. G. Stewart, extension agronomist with Colorado State College of Agriculture (now Colorado State University), is credited with organizing the first Roundtable meeting at Fort Collins, Colo., in 1935.
After the second meeting in 1936, researchers from California were invited to join the 1937 discussions. The process of creating a more-structured national organization that would bring together the various facets of the industry culminated on January 7 during the closing session of the 1937 meeting.
At least 24 groups, including processing companies, seed companies, state universities, the U.S Department of Agriculture and sugarbeet grower associations from across the United States and Canada, were represented at the 1937 Roundtable. A. W. Skuderna of American Crystal Sugar Co. (Rocky Ford, Colo.) was elected the first president, while N.R. McCreery of the Great Western Sugar Company (Denver, Colo.) was elected vice president, and H.E. Brewbaker (with USDA, Fort Collins), secretary-treasurer. A committee was assigned the task of drafting a constitution and bylaws for discussion at the first session of the 1938 meeting.
The participation of representatives of the Canadian sugar industry in the 1937 Roundtable discussions was likely instrumental in the Society becoming the “American Society” with the inclusion of Canadians as full participants in the organization since its inception.
The American Society of Sugar Beet Technologists (ASSBT) was officially created on January 13, 1938, in Salt Lake City, Utah, with the adoption of a constitution and bylaws; membership dues were set at $1.00. Sixty-four papers, including one presented by a Danish researcher, were presented at the 1938 meeting. Discussions at the Roundtable meetings were limited to breeding, agronomy or other phases of production research. However, ASSBT has included chemists and factory technologists as full participants since its beginning.
According to the original constitution, “The objective of this society shall be to foster all phases of sugar beet and beet sugar research, and act as a clearing house for the exchange of ideas resulting from such work.” The wording of the current mission statement has changed slightly, but remains primarily focused upon the original objectives. The interchange of ideas through the Society is credited with breaking down many barriers between companies and leading to a free discussion of mutual problems. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of ASSBT in 1987, President Donald Oldemeyer contended that the value of ASSBT in fostering cooperation among federal, state and private researchers — which, in turn, contributes to the cohesiveness and survival of the industry — could not be overemphasized.
ASSBT has fostered exchanges not only among its North American members, but also has facilitated communication with colleagues in Europe. As early as 1940, the membership rolls included three European researchers. Furthermore, a notification of the ASSBT meeting and greetings were sent via cablegram to the IIRB (International Institute for Beet Research) in Brussels, Belgium, during the inaugural ASSBT meeting in 1938. The regular attendance of IIRB representatives at ASSBT meetings since then is evidence of an enduring productive relationship between IIRB and ASSBT.
Between 37 and 140 sugarbeet researchers participated in the 1935 to 1937 Roundtable discussions that preceded the formation of ASSBT. Two years after the formation of ASSBT, the organization had 256 members. Membership had increased to 354 on the 10th anniversary of the formation of ASSBT, and regional meetings were held in Detroit, Mich., and Salt Lake City. By its 25th anniversary, ASSBT had 633 members representing 35 state and 20 countries, and the Society’s journal was distributed to 59 countries. Membership had dropped to 550 by ASSBT’s 50th anniversary and is currently about 300 as it celebrates its 75th anniversary.
Formal communication among ASSBT members occurs via oral and poster presentations at biennial meetings, published proceedings of the meetings, articles relevant to the industry in a peer-reviewed journal, and via online websites that allow unrestricted access to all society publications.
Midwinter biennial meetings were held in or near sugarbeet production areas prior to 1968. But having to endure temperatures that never exceeded 0° F during the 1966 meeting in Minneapolis, Minn., prompted the scheduling of future meetings at warmer, more-southern sites, according to anecdotes. There was no meeting in 1944 because of war-time restrictions, and the meeting scheduled for 1980 was delayed until the winter of 1981 because of severe economic problems in the industry. All other meetings have occurred at two-year intervals. The only biennial meeting convened outside the borders of the U.S. was the 31st gathering, held in Vancouver, B.C., in 2001.
Prior to 1956, all research reports were published as proceedings of the biennial meetings. With the exception of 1944, from 1942 to 1954 the proceedings were compiled in book form.
After its launch in 1956, the Journal of the American Society of Sugar Beet Technologists (JASSBT) became the principal ASSBT publication for distribution of research results. JASSBT was renamed the Journal of Sugar Beet Research (JSBR) in 1988. James Fischer edited the JASSBT for many years in conjunction with his responsibilities as secretary-treasurer of ASSBT. Susan Martin replaced Fischer as editor; and since then, three members have served as Journal editors — Alan Dexter, Larry Campbell and Lee Panella — with the assistance of many associate editors and expert reviewers.
It is in the spirit of the founders that the publications of the ASSBT are now accessible without charge to the general public on recently established websites. These sites provide access to all issues of JASSBT and JSBR (assbt-jsbr.org), and the proceedings of the first (1938) to the 36th (2011) biennial meetings (assbt-proceedings.org). Since 1993, abstracts of papers presented at the biennial meetings have been published in JSBR. The sites allow users to search by topic or author. This enhancement of communication among sugarbeet researchers worldwide will, in turn, complement a longtime objective of ASSBT, i.e., “producing more sugar per acre at decreased cost.”
ASSBT has established four award categories to recognize members whose contributions to the industry and/or the Society are substantial. The Forty-Year Veteran Award recognizes any individual, member or nonmember whose service has benefited the industry for 40 years. The Meritorious Service Award acknowledges members “who have been outstanding in promoting the objectives of the Society, or have made significant contributions to the beet sugar industry.” Those elected to Honorary Membership “have rendered outstanding service to the beet sugar industry or have by virtue of scientific accomplishment acquired the admiration and respect of this Society.”
The most prestigious award the Society offers is the Savitsky Memorial Award named in honor of Viacheslav and Helen Savitsky. The Savitsky Award recognizes those who “have excelled in either scientific advancement in the field of sugar technology, or service and dedication to the sugar industry.” Only seven individuals have received the Savitsky Memorial Award: Richard A. McGinnis in 1991, James H. Fischer in 1995, James E. Duffus in 2001, Marius Christian G. Middelburg in 2003, Alan G. Dexter in 2007 and Alvin W. Erichsen and Robert T. Lewellen in 2009.
ASSBT shares many common objectives with — and has benefited from — a close association with the Beet Sugar Development Foundation (BSDF). BSDF was chartered under the laws of Colorado in July 1945. At that time, it was primarily concerned with mechanizing sugarbeet production. BSDF membership consists of sugarbeet processing companies and seed companies. “The BSDF is dedicated to the advancement of sugarbeet production and beet sugar processing through science-based research and leading educational programs.” BSDF financed publication of the proceedings of the 1946 ASSBT meeting and has since provided supplemental funding for many of the research projects managed by members of ASSBT, and others.
James H. Fischer was the first paid secretary-treasurer of BSDF, originally hired on a part-time basis in January 1947 while an engineering student — and on a full-time basis in 1948. Fischer held the position for 40 years. Beginning in 1952, he also served jointly as secretary-treasurer of ASSBT and was a major force behind the 1956 launch of the Journal of the American Society of Sugar Beet Technologists.
Stephen Reynolds was hired in 1986, initially to work with Fischer and then assume full responsibilities upon Fischer’s retirement in 1987. Reynolds served as secretary-treasurer until his departure in 1988.
Thomas Schwartz was hired to replace Reynolds in September 1988 and has promoted the objectives of and guided BSDF and ASSBT since then. Schwartz’s title was changed to “executive vice president” to more accurately reflect the executive duties of the office. Schwartz was instrumental in updating the Journal format, including changing its name and logo in 1988 and, more recently, the establishment of the Journal’s online presence.
The mechanization of beet production was emphasized during ASSBT's first decade.
History documents the fact that the beet sugar industry has faced many challenges — some from natural sources, others from public policy decisions and perceived health concerns. Protected by a 1.685-cent-per-pound tariff, the U.S. sugar industry flourished in the 10-year period following 1896. The pending elimination of the tariff probably would have been a deathblow to the industry had it not been for the increase in domestic food production prompted by World War I.
During World War II, a similar need for a reliable domestic sugar supply benefited the industry. Immigration policy limiting the availability of Mexican nationals was cited as a problem that would complicate weed control in sugarbeet fields in the presidential address at the 1964 ASSBT biennial meeting. While government policies affect the well-being of the industry and may impact the resources available for research and the nature of the research conducted, ASSBT, as a society, is not directly involved in molding policy.
Although specific research objectives change over the years, ASSBT and its members always have focused on increasing productivity, reducing costs and adapting new technology to old problems. A priority topic at the 1940 meeting was the standardization of experimental methods. Mechanization of all facets of production — but particularly harvesting — was emphasized during ASSBT’s first 10 years.
Disease, insect and weed control issues have changed over time; but they remain a constant threat to production. Fertilizer management, tillage options, seedling emergence and other management practices have been frequent topics at ASSBT meetings and continually require refinement as new equipment, varieties and knowledge become available. Postharvest storage losses have been recognized by ASSBT as a problem at least since 1946.
Improving sucrose extraction rates and efficiencies of factories has been and continues to be a high priority. Public policy decisions that will affect profitability remain unpredictable.
Diseases and insect pests are occurring with increased intensity in some areas and show no sign of diminishing. The optimization of precision agriculture technologies to specific environments will enhance production efficiency.
Remaining competitive in a global economy will require the continuation of the productive cooperation between industry and public research institutions that has been facilitated for the past 75 years by ASSBT. ASSBT will remain a strong, effective, vehicle for this cooperation as long as it keeps the vision of its founders — and those who have followed — as its mission.
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Editor & General Manager of The Sugarbeet Grower