Sugar beets a brief branch of ag history

17 years ago

To the editor:
In 1876, Maine Governor Selden Conner recommended, and the Legislature soon enacted, a law that provided a bounty (state subsidy) “not exceeding one cent a pound on all beet sugar manufactured in this state from beets raised in this state.” The success of sugar beets in California had attracted the attention of Maine’s leaders for some time.     Among the papers written for the 1876 meeting of the Maine Board of Agriculture was one by George E. Bracket of Belfast entitled “Beet Sugar.” Although the Governor had appointed him to the Board, Mr. Bracket conveyed caution regarding the feasibility and advisability of the culture of the beet in Maine for the manufacture of sugar.
“Whether the farmers can compete with them, except at large cost for special fertilizers, is a question for consideration. That we can grow the beet to perfection in our State is a fact proven by repeated experiment, as also that large crops can be obtained, and thus the question is one of comparative cost.” The average (irrigated) yield in California was 20 tons per acre.
In 1878, the Maine Sugar Beet Company was formed. A refinery was equipped at Portland, a drying kiln was built at Presque Isle, and contracts for raising a specific acreage of sugar beets (from seed provided by the company) were made with farmers in both areas. The beets grown near Presque Isle were dried at the kiln and dried pulp was shipped to Portland.
According to the “Maine Farmer,” the venture at Presque Isle proved too costly to be continued. Farmers delivered about 500 tons of beets and “good farmers like Columbus Hayford obtained satisfactory yields, but the expense of operating the kiln and the freight on the dried pulp was so great that the project was abandoned after a single year.”
In 1879, some 1,700 southern Maine farmers produced 9,000 tons of beets (on 1,000 acres) for $5 a ton delivered at the railroad or $6 at the factory. Many of them were dissatisfied with their yields and the price received. Rumors were rife the company was “making money hand over fist.”
In late October, the Maine Sugar Beet Company pushed 125 men “day and night without cessation, except one hour at noon and one hour at midnight, until about Christmas.” The factory consumed at least 25 tons of coal each day. When the company offered the same $5 per ton to farmers in February of 1880, not enough acres were signed up. The company folded, and the processing machinery was later sold.
In Mr. Bracket’s paper of 1876, he had offered a suggestion. “It occurs to me that we have already with us in our midst in Maine, an industry productive of the same immediate results which is worthy of encouragement. I refer to the manufacture of sugar from the sugar maple, which yields only a little over one percent of the total sugar products of the world, but which it seems to me is capable of being largely improved, enlarged and extended, especially in our own State. The crop is a permanent one, no annual planting or cultivation being required; only the harvest and the manufacture of the product, and the market has never been overstocked. We may safely predict that maple syrup and maple sugar will command a remunerative price for years. I think this industry worthy of more attention than has been bestowed upon it.”

Steve Sutter
Presque Isle