The following discussion of the timing and methods of sugarbeet harvesting appeared in an 1898 U.S. Department of Agriculture publication titled “Special Report on the Beet Sugar Industry in the United States.” The section from which these excerpts were taken was written by field agent Charles Saylor, who during 1897 visited every state and locality mentioned in his report, inspecting farms and factories and interviewing growers and sugar manufacturers.
As of 1897, sugarbeet factories were in operation in the following locations: Alvarado, Watsonville, Los Alamitos and Chino, Calif.; Lehi, Utah; Eddy, N. Mex.; Norfolk and Grand Island, Neb.; and Rome, N.Y. Factories being readied in time for the 1898 sugarbeet crop included Salina, Crockett, Santa Maria (Betteravia) and Hueneme (Oxnard), Calif.; LaGrande, Ore.; Ogden, Utah; Bay City, Mich.; and Binghamton, N.Y. The report also indicated that a factory was being built at Dunkirk, N.Y., for the 1899 crop.
The time of harvesting is governed by the time of the ripening of the beets. This ripening is made apparent by the outside leaves of the plant taking on a yellowish tinge and dropping to the ground. An experienced eye soon learns to detect a field of ripe beets that is ready for harvesting, the whole field being colored to this yellow tint and the leaves showing this dropping tendency peculiar to the matured plant.
The beets have now finished their work, and the next step of the grower must by governed by his locality. If he is in a locality where there is a probability of rain, the beets must by harvested and placed in silos. This would be the case in most of the sections where rain conditions prevail, such places usually having strong rains in September and October, followed by more or less warm days.
The effect of the rain will be to cause the beets to begin growing again and new leaves will soon be noticed starting out, as well as new lateral roots from the beet in the soil, all the beets showing a general tendency to a second growth. Serious damage to the crop will soon be done in this way. The sugar content of the beet goes down materially and its impurities increase, so that if the rains are marked and followed by warm days, it is possible for a whole crop to be lost, so far as their fitness for factory purposes is concerned.
Harvesting is accomplished by means of an implement especially prepared for the purpose. We have seen several kinds of these implements, all of which seem to work admirably.
In some places it is done by means of a long slender plow, which works on the principle of the stirring plow. It goes deep down into the ground with a sharp plowshare. This plow is run close to the beet in such a way that the share cuts the taproot just below the enlargement of the beet, at the same time loosening, lifting, and laying it on its side.
Another harvester, instead of having a share, has two prongs, one of which passes on either side of the lower portion of the beet root; the space in front between the two prongs being larger than that in the rear, causes the beet root to be forced into the smaller space between these prongs as they pass by, and the beet is lifted bodily 3 or 4 inches and the taproot broken. As the plow passes on, the beet drops back into its place loosened and ready to be lifted from the ground by the hand.
Following the plow are persons who pick up these beets and by one stroke with a large knife made for the purpose separate the crown of the beet together with the leaves. This is called “topping,” and it is the aim of the person doing this “topping” to make the cut where the line of the beet shows that portion has projected above the ground. Where the beet has been grown entirely under the ground only enough is cut off to carry with it the crown and the leaves.
If the beets are to be sent to the factory at once, the “topper” simply throws them in piles, from which they are taken and placed in sacks and put in wagons for delivery to the factory. They are sometimes thrown loosly (sic) into the wagons from the piles.
Most of the factories, however, have arrangements for quickly handling the beets. Some of them have wagons provided with nets for receiving the beets, and upon reaching the factory these nets are taken from the wagons by the aid of machinery, and their contents dumped into the beet sheds. At other factories the wagons are hauled upon an elevated driveway, which is arranged in such manner that the portion on which the wagon rests can be tipped, and the wagon tipping at the same time, the load of beets is precipitated into the beet sheds.
By either of the above methods the beets in the wagons are very quickly handled at the factory, and the advantages of these arrangements can be appreciated when it is known that long lines of wagons, loaded with sugar beets, stand ready at the factory to be handled. Either of these arrangements quickly dispose of many wagon loads, and teams are not required to wait long, as would be the case if unloaded in the ordinary way of shoveling out of the wagons into the shed.
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Editor & General Manager of The Sugarbeet Grower