When you buy a big load of soil for raised beds or another use, you usually don’t know where the soil has been or what’s been growing in it. It probably won’t have as many weed seeds as the soil in your yard, but you can’t assume that the soil you’ve bought is sterile.
I filled three large raised beds early last summer with a mixture of silty loam and compost from a local nursery. When what I guessed were Swiss chard seedlings appeared in the beds, I was delighted. I’d been depending on chard to self-sow in my garden, but none had come up after the extreme cold of the past winter. Now I wouldn’t have to plant chard from seed.
I transplanted a few of the chard seedlings into a neat row and waited for the leaves to get big. They never grew over about two feet, though, and when I tasted them they were unpleasantly fibrous. The stalks were thin, too. By the end of the summer, I could see thick white roots protruding out of the soil. I’d never seen roots like those on Swiss chard. As fall turned to winter, the truth dawned on me: I was growing not chard but its relative the sugar beet.
Although as far as I recalled I’d never seen a sugar beet before, I knew that Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where I lived, produced most of the country’s sugar beet seed. Beta vulgaris is biennial, but the climate here allows the production of seed in just a year. Farmers plant sugar-beet seed in late summer or early fall, and the cool winter causes the plant to “vernalize,” or switch from vegetative to reproductive mode. When warm weather returns, the plant bolts, and the seeds are harvested. Some of them naturally end up on the ground. I suspected that the soil I’d bought had come from a former sugar-beet field. A Web search for photos of sugar beets confirmed my suspicion.
While still in the earth, the sugar beet plant looks much like chard, and also like a growing table beet, because these three are all variants of the same species, Beta vulgaris. (That chard and beets of all sorts are the same species, and that this species prefers to reproduce through cross- rather than self-pollination, explains why organic chard and regular beet farmers feel so seriously threatened by the effort to introduce Roundup Ready sugar-beet production.) Native to Europe, Beta vulgaris has been cultivated since prehistoric times as food for humans and livestock. The ancient Romans were apparently the first to use the roots, which were small, narrow, and either white or black, in addition to the greens. By 1596, when the horticulturalist John Gerard grew beetroots in England, anonymous gardeners had developed red “Roman” beets as big as carrots; apparently none were yet round.
The mangelwurzel, or fodder beet, developed later than the table beet, apparently in the Rhineland in the eighteenth century. A variety of Beta vulgaris with a large, yellow, white, or red root that kept well over the winter, the mangel was valued as a supplement for milk cows but came to be seen as poverty food for people, partially because of its corrupted name; mangelwurzel, “scarcity root,” devolved from mangold wurzel, “chard root,” the name by which it is still known in Germany. Mangels were being cultivated in America by 1796, when Amelia Simmons wrote of beets that “the white has a sickish sweetness, which is disliked by many.” You can still get mangel seed from old-fashioned garden-seed companies like R. H. Shumway, and in England mangels are still fed to cows and pigs, carved into jack o’ lanterns, fermented and distilled into liquor, and competitively hurled as a rural amusement.
From the fodder beet developed the sugar beet. A German chemist, Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, reported in 1747 that crystals from the syrup of mangelwurzel were identical to crystals from cane syrup. His student Franz Carl Achard experimented with mangel varieties and growing methods to maximize the beet’s sugar content. In 1801, soon after the Haitian Revolution threatened the world supply of cane sugar, the king of Prussia granted Achard funds to begin commercial production of beet sugar in Silesia (now part of Poland). Through selective breeding to increase the sugar content of the beets, Achard developed them into a viable commercial crop. A few years later, during the Napoleonic Wars, Britain blocked supplies of West Indian cane sugar to France, and Napoleon ordered the establishment of large-scale sugar-beet farming and refining. Europe was soon producing most of its own sugar.
Across the Atlantic, abolitionists eager to undermine the demand for slave labor promoted the use of sugar beets from the 1830s on. But the first successful U.S. beet refineries weren’t established until the 1870s, by Claus Spreckels in California. Today beets account for 30 percent of the world’s sugar production and 55 to 60 percent of U.S. sugar consumption.
So, what was I to do with my sugar beets? I came across a mention of something called Zucherrüben Sirup, sugar-beet syrup. It’s a specialty of Germany, especially the Rhineland, where, as one German manufacturer advertises, it’s “an old favorite as a sandwich spread special for breakfast!” Also used to sweeten sauces, cakes, and other desserts, Zucherrüben Sirup is made by cooking shredded sugar beets, pressing the mash, and concentrating the juice to the consistency of honey. Having experimented in the past with making no-sugar-added syrup from apples, grapes, and watermelons, I had to try sugar-beet syrup.
In early January, I got around to digging up my sugar beets. Cleaning them was a chore. The skin comes off easily with a vegetable peeler, but I had to excavate a lot of crevices to get the beets fully clean. For the shredding step, I found that a cheap box grater worked better than my fancy mandoline.
I put 4 pounds of the shredded sugar beets into a large, heavy pot, covered them with 3 quarts water, brought the water to a simmer, and covered the pot. After the beets had simmered 15 minutes, I pressed them in a small fruit press placed in a large stockpot, and then propped the press over the pot to finish draining.
Left in the press was a hard cake of shredded beet the size of a dessert cake layer. The chickens loved it.
In the stockpot was a little more than 3 quarts of almost colorless liquid. I strained it to remove any remnants of beet solids, and then I boiled the liquid, uncovered, in a wide, heavy pan for about an hour and a half, until I had 1 cup dark amber liquid about as thick as honey syrup.
I let the syrup sit in a jar on the kitchen counter for a couple of weeks. By then some of the solids had settled out, and the syrup had lost its slight cloudiness. I poured off the clear syrup. The residue had a slightly bitter aftertaste. The syrup had an earthy aroma reminiscent of table beets and an odd bite on the tongue.
In retrospect, I think I could have extracted more sugar from the beets if I’d cooked them longer, stirred them more, or both. But will I try again? Probably not. Frankly, the experiment renewed my appreciation for more flavorful liquid sweeteners—cider syrup, maple syrup, and most of all honey.
Zuckerrüben Sirup isn’t bad, though. If you’d like to try some and can’t find any sugar beets in your neighborhood, you can order the syrup through online stores such as the German Grocery Store.
UPDATE 2022: At the time I wrote this article sugar beets were controversial in Oregon and elsewhere, because many farmers had begun planting GMO sugar-beet seed. This allowed them to spray glyphosate (Roundup) all over their fields, on their crops as well as the weeds. Doing so saved them from hiring workers to weed the fields. Besides, they argued, the GMOs couldn’t be found in the refined sugar. But the unintentional overspray of glyphosate was damaging neighbor’s crops, weeds were becoming resistant to the herbicide, and Roundup Ready plants were crossing with non-GMO plants, even on organic farms.
Some farmers found they couldn’t plant non-GMO seed even if they wanted to. Suddenly, non-GMO sugar-beet seed was practically unavailable. The industry warned of a likely sugar shortage.
Many farmers carried on growing GMO sugar beets. They were allowed to harvest the beets in the spring of 2010, but a judge ruled that growers would have to plow up any GMO beets that they planted for the next harvest season. Then, in February 2011, the judge’s decision was reversed, and in 2012 the U.S. government completely deregulated GMO sugar beets. Some states passed their own regulations regarding GMO foods, but in 2016 Congress exempted beet-derived sugar from all state-imposed GMO labeling requirements. In 2018, the USDA declared that refined foods derived from GMO crops, including beet sugar, would not be considered GMO foods at all. In its latest affront against American consumers, the USDA has now banned the term GMO (too political!) and developed a pretty green and blue label, depicting a plant, for identifying “bioengineered” foods in the supermarket. If consumers want more information, they will have to scan a QR code.
European and Asian countries, meanwhile, began allowing the importation of GMO foods and even permitting their own farmers to grow them.
Glyphosate has not been vindicated. After buying Monsanto, Bayer announced a $10 million settlement to resolve lawsuits over Roundup’s role in cancer cases. Researchers have begun to question the effects of the herbicide not only on human health but on the health of the soil and its organisms and on the water into which it leaches. And glyphosate-resistant weeds are an ever-growing problem.
Undeterred, Monsanto and Dow have recently developed “Agent Orange” GMO corn and soybeans, resistant to a combination of glyphosate and 2,4-D. As Vietnam veterans know too well, 2,4-D is associated with cancer, lowered sperm counts, liver disease, and Parkinson’s Disease. The chemical is believed to harm the human hormonal, reproductive, neurological, and immune systems.
Agent Orange sugar beets may be next in the queue.
It’s possible that the sugar-beet seeds in my purchased soil were of the GMO type. Although I still wonder where that soil came from and what contaminants it may have contained, the beets themselves were no threat to anyone. I didn’t let them go to seed, and my sugar syrup was almost certainly free of any trace of GMOs or Roundup.
But if you want to plant sugar beets and try your own hand at making beet-sugar syrup, I advise buying non-GMO sugar-beet seed. It is easily available via the Internet from small companies that cater to home gardeners.