X Slider Background Settings
SCOTTSBLUFF — When you put that spoonful of sugar into your morning coffee, little thought will be paid to how it got there beyond buying the bag off the shelf of your local supermarket.
According to Western Sugar agronomist Michael Ann Relka, Western Sugar employs about 390 personnel at its Scottsbluff factory, contributing roughly $124 million a year to the local economy. While it was originally built in 1910, Since 2002, the factory has been owned by a cooperative of sugarbeet growers, who grow the crop locally. Yearly agreements are signed, wherein growers get their share of profits off the beets grown based on the acreage planted.
Today, all of the sugarbeets in America have been genetically modified to resist glyphosate, an herbicide more commonly known as Round-up. The advent of GMO sugarbeets has actually allowed for farmers to make fewer pesticide applications to their fields, limiting the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as well as preventing erosion and limiting soil compaction in fields.
At harvest, sugarbeets are pulled from the ground using special harvesting equipment and transported by the semi-load to the factory where they are weighed and placed into piles.
The beets are floated into the factory by water in a flume, which washes off trash, weeds, leaves and residue. From there they are washed again before heading to a hopper above slices which cut them into potato-chip like slices called “cossettes.” The sugar is extracted from the cossettes in diffusers, which use osmosis (soaking in water) to extract the beet juice.
The raw juice is purified and filtrated through multiple chemical processes before heading to an evaporator. By this point, roughly 80 percent of the beet’s water content has been removed, and the concentrate is boiled and placed in a centrifuge where the remaining impurities are “spun out.” After multiple stages of crystallization, the finished sugar is finally ready to bag and ship.
Recent expansions to the Scottsbluff factory means that molasses and “thick juice” can be collected to be reboiled and further processed into sugar, which Production superintendent Tracy Bentley said means the Scottsbluff Factory can operate up to 11 months out of the year.
“We had a few hiccups after the expansion last year, but the factory is performing much better now,” Bentley said.
Melinda Steele, packaging and warehouse manager for Western Sugar, said that the sugar is stored in silos and can be loaded and unloaded from trucks and train cars and vice-versa, to be made into five different “varieties,” including three types of brown sugar, industrial sugar (regular granulated white sugar), powdered sugar.
The machines at the factory can produce 93 four-pound bags per-minute, 74 four- or ten-pound bags per minute. The industrial line can produce about 4 to 5 bags per-minute for 25- and 50-pound bags. And powder and brown sugar machines work about 50 to 33 bags per-minute.
“You have a potential for quite a few bags per-minute per-hour,” Steele said.