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Story & photo by Robert M. Harveson |
University of Nebraska Extension Plant Pathologist, Panhandle R&E Center, Scottsbluff
In the early 1900s, the sugarbeet was unique among American crops due to its almost complete reliance upon Europe as a source for providing seed each season. The vast majority of all seed used in the U.S. during this period was produced in Europe - Germany and France. Over the first three decades of the 20th century, two major factors emerged that convinced Americans that a domestic seed industry was critically needed for sugarbeets. The first of these factors was the First World War, much of which occurred in the trenches and battlefields of Belgium, France, and Germany. This is the story of the sugarbeet seed industry, its beginning in the U.S., and how its birth was energized by WWI.
Harvey W. Wiley’s Early Research
After finishing medical school, and several years as the Professor of Chemistry at Indiana Medical College, Harvey Wiley took a position as the first chair of the Chemistry Department in 1874 at the newly formed Purdue University. While at Purdue, he became interested in sorghum and sugarbeets and their sugar chemistry as vehicles for developing new alternative sugar sources, with the eventual goal of enhancing the domestic production of sugar.
In 1883, he accepted a post as chief of the USDA’s Bureau of Chemistry. In 1887, prior to any commercial production in the U.S., Wiley preliminarily reported that he had successfully produced sugarbeet seed, but his first serious effort to produce seeds in the U.S. occurred in 1891 in Schuyler, Nebraska. Over the next decade, he achieved steady and continuous progress from different locations stretching from Michigan to Idaho and Washington with diverse soil and environmental conditions. Wiley’s pioneering research not only provided evidence that production in the U.S. was feasible, but it was also noted that American-grown seed possessed better quality, with superior germination and larger taproots and higher sucrose yields than those previously imported from Europe.
Based on these initial results, the USDA recommended the continuation of this work and to develop regionally-adapted seed for all beet-producing regions of the U.S. However, because the foreign supplies for seed were still available and judged as satisfactory, this advice was not heeded and little effort was expended until the mid-19-teens.
WWI Affecting Seed Availability
Beginning about 1915, with the escalation of the war conditions in Europe, the quality of seed either deteriorated or became generally unavailable. Even though the European seed previously used was highly susceptible to diseases and not well adapted for the variable environmental conditions in the U.S., the failure to procure sufficient supplies of seed during the war years was still an economic disaster resulting in the loss of income and investment capital. Therefore, it became apparent that an American sugar beet industry was sorely needed instead of depending on European sources. Wiley’s previous investigations 20-plus years earlier took on greater significance when seed availability was completely halted by the War, and sugar companies were forced to reconsider the concept of producing seeds domestically.
Domestic Sugarbeet Seed
The production of seed in America was initially modeled after programs utilized in Europe. However, no attempts were made to improve the quality or create new better-adapted varieties. As a biennial plant, the sugarbeet will grow vegetatively during the first year, building sucrose in the roots (purpose for commercial use today) for the following year’s reproductive growth. The seeds were initially planted, the roots were harvested after the first season, stored over the winter, and then transplanted the following spring for seed production.
As this idea was hastily conceived and implemented, substantial losses were suffered due to high labor costs, loss of roots in storage, and resulting poor yields ranging from a few hundred pounds/acre to 2000, with an average of 800 pounds/acre. After WWI ended, the sugarbeet industry returned to the importation of European seeds again, a practice that should have been avoided. Unfortunately, the lessons learned during the War were soon forgotten due to lower costs and greater convenience. Approximately 15,000,000 pounds from Europe were annually brought into the U.S. between 1920 and 1933.
However, it took a second significant factor to finally coerce us to create our own regionally adapted, disease-resistant seeds without depending on Europe. What was that second factor? See the July/August edition of The Sugarbeet Grower to find out.