When we think of growing sugar, most people think of tropical climates and tall sugar canes ready for the harvest. Canada is not one of these places, so we import our sugar. Canada imports approximately 20,000 to 40,000 tonnes of sugar cane (partially processed) to our refineries in Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto. The final product is then shipped to food manufacturers and packaged and used by retailers and everyday consumers. However, that was not always the case.
During the Second World War, Canadians were afraid of experiencing another sugar shortage, which occurred in the First World War. To combat this, Manitoba farmers were encouraged to grow a sucrose-sugar-rich plant that could withstand Canadian weather; sugar beets.
Sugar beets are white beets that can contain more sugar than sugar cane and are similar in taste, but their processing is very different. The sugar cane sugar is extracted from the juice within the plant, while the beets’ root is processed like maple syrup, boiling the water out, so the sugar is all that remains.
For Manitoba, sugar beet cultivation is older than some might think. Sugar beets were first tested by the Manitoba Agricultural College in 1903, as the United States was starting its studies. In 1922, Winnipeg’s C. J. McCollom had successfully cultivated the beets in Manitoba. The outcome would lead various Manitoba businessmen to establish the Manitoba Sugar Company in 1925.
The company conducted experimental farms around Brandon, Portage la Prairie, and Winnipeg and developed new seeds for farmers. From 1939 to 1940, Manitoban farmers produced 1,500 tonnes of sugar beets by 600 farmers.
With the province having so much raw sugar, they needed a refinery. The Manitoba Sugar Company was called into action and constructed a refinery plant in Winnipeg in the fall of 1940. This development led farmers to have their produce processed locally rather than having to send them south to Minnesota.
The company operated independently until 1956 when bought by the British Columbia Sugar Refining Company (known as B.C. Sugar, later operating as its subsidiary, Roger’s Sugar, in Manitoba).
The refinery would close its doors in 1997 due to the United States’ General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiated in 1995, which allowed its government to restrict Canadian exports of sugar-containing products and refined sugar from Canada.
In Canada today, the only sugar beet refinery is located in Taber, Alberta. They produce about 10 per cent of Canada’s total sugar consumption (90% from sugar cane-produced products). Studies by the Alberta Sugar Beet Growers show that more people are interested in sugar beet products as an alternative for plant-based proteins, biofuels, and more!
If you would like to purchase sugar beet sugar, look for white sugar products by Roger’s Sugar that has a black factory stamp with “22” as the first digits. Many Alberta companies and bakeries use sugar beets.