FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) — Colorado’s past, present and future are all visible from Paul Schlagel’s front porch just a few miles off Interstate 25 in Longmont.
A pristine view of Longs Peak and the Rocky Mountain range rests undisturbed to the west. Manufacturing and housing developments have inched closer from the east, and the once desolate Boulder County Road 20½ that runs by the farmhouse is now full of steady traffic.
A rotation of crops surrounding the homestead includes a field of sugar beets, which the Schlagel family has grown since they immigrated to Colorado with legions of other Germans from Russia in 1907. Paul and his son, Scott, lead the farming today, and a sixth generation of the Schlagel family arrived earlier this month.
“Sugar beets are part of our heritage but it’s also deeper than that,” said Paul, a 63-year-old lifelong farmer. “The sugar beet grower group is small, but we are dedicated to the sugar industry and keeping it going for generations.”
These sugar beets are different than the purple vegetable often used in salads and championed on “The Office” by Dwight Schrute. When harvested, sugar beets are about a foot long and weigh 2 to 5 pounds.
The crop is solely grown to be converted into white table sugar — a scientific process once outlined on an episode of Sesame Street.
“We are getting as good a sugar beet crop as ever,” Paul said. “And whatever you say about sugar, it is still a vital ingredient to cooking and does a lot more than just make stuff sweet.”
The Schlagel family has grown sugar beets since it was Colorado’s first true cash crop, populating the state in the 20th century with laborers from around the world and diversifying an economy previously reliant on mining and ranching. They’ve stuck with sugar beets as their importance in the state’s economy has dwindled with fluctuating sugar commodities prices, a shrunken farm labor workforce and other industries emerging.
But now technological and research advancements have the Schlagels and other farmers growing sugar beets as efficiently as ever. Despite a diminishing amount of farmland dedicated to the crop, Colorado farmers produced more than 1 million tons of sugar beets last year for the first time since 2000.
“It is really a sustainability success story,” said Rebecca Larson, the vice president and chief scientist for the Western Sugar Cooperative. “Technology has allowed us to not disturb the soil, not burn as much fuel and grow the sugar beets on fewer acres.”
The biggest population growth Colorado would ever experience came around the turn of the 20th century, thanks to sugar beets.
An 1888 experiment conducted by Colorado State University precursor college Colorado A&M had determined that Colorado’s soil and climate were ideal for growing sugar beets. When a German seed supplier visited the Fort Collins area shortly thereafter, Coloradoan archives say he predicted the area’s real estate would double within a few years — little did he know what it would become today.
Immigrants came from various parts of the world to help plant, weed, harvest and labor in the sugar beet fields. Fort Collins grew from 3,000 residents in 1900 to more than 8,000 by 1910.
Similar growth came in the other Centennial State cities. Fort Morgan’s population tripled within four years of its sugar beet industry starting, and the property prices there increased from $40 an acre to about $200 an acre.
“If you go back in history, sugar beets were the cash crop,” Paul said. “They populated Colorado and built the railroads. … People used to line up to work on your farm.”
Great Western Sugar Co. processing plants popped up in more than 20 different Colorado cities — if your town had one, it was on the map.
Farmers would deliver their sugar beet harvest every fall so they could be converted into sugar crystals.
“The sugar beet crop was always the check to pay off the bank, all your bills and the farm,” Paul said. “Everything else you grew was to feed your animals.”
Processing plants previously operated in Fort Collins at 625 Ninth St., in the space just behind New Belgium Brewing that today houses the Fort Collins Street Department; in Windsor near the current intersection of First and Walnut streets; in Loveland at the intersection of Madison Avenue and East 11th Street; and in Greeley just east of U.S. Highway 85 at 1302 First Ave.
Sugar beet profitability began to wane in the 1950s. New regulations and competition from imported sugar cane hurt the industry.
Processing factories began to close across the state, many of which sit vacant today. Great Western Sugar Co. eventually declared bankruptcy in 1985.
In Fort Collins, a lone remnant of the factory stands over the Poudre River in Kingfisher Point Natural Area today. The suspension flume bridge that was built in 1926 to dump excess waste from the factory into a field was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.
The Choice City, however, has remained influential in the world of sugar beets.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture research facility was started in the 1920s to combat disease outbreaks and has continued to operate ever since. A breeding line first developed here during the 1980s is now used around the world because it is resistant to a harmful fungus called Rhizoctonia.
Of all the past Colorado sugar factories, only Fort Morgan — which started operating in 1906 — remains active.
“There are a lot of factors that come into play, but location is probably the best reason (why Fort Morgan remains),” said Rodney Perry, Western Sugar Cooperative’s president and CEO. “Fort Morgan sits in the middle of the beet growing region from the Front Range out to Yuma.”
It was pitch black at 4 a.m. as Paul and Scott looked to plant their 2018 sugar beet crop before an impending storm this April. Both grew up working in the fields, hauling loads of sugar beets before school during the harvest months.
“I would tell people I knew how to drive a tractor when I was 5 years old,” said a smirking Scott, now 32.
Sugar beet planting used to require horse-drawn power. Then it evolved to gas tractors, where drivers had to alternate looking forward and back in an attempt to plant a straight row.
But now the planting is done much more smoothly with GPS technology. The advancement has emerged as a common farming tool over the past decade.
“You’ve always wanted people to drive by your farm and say, ‘Oh those are pretty straight rows,'” Paul said. “I was never that good at it. They were always slightly crooked.
“Now they are always straight.”
GPS technology is also used in harvesting, fertilizing, herbicide application and sprinkler watering as computers now handle the bulk of farming chores.
Another major advancement in the sugar beet industry was the introduction of Roundup Ready seeds in 2008 — which means the plant is not harmed by the application of herbicides. Roundup Ready seeds have helped farmers increase sugar beet yields from an average of 8,000 pounds of sugar per acre to 13,000.
“It revolutionized how people farm with sugar beets,” Larson said. “Before it was really hard to control weeds. Spraying herbicides killed those weeds but also would have an impact on the beets.”
But “today, we don’t have weeds, period,” Paul added.
More advancements could be coming from the USDA sugar beet research facility in Fort Collins. Multi-year studies on enhancing yields and protecting sugar beets from plant pathogens are currently underway.
Scientists test plant breeding and study the compounds of wild sugar beet varieties. The more efficient seeds development mean less costly chemicals farmers need to apply.
The Fort Collins USDA site has made more than 120 study releases since 1961.
“We are trying to help the American farmer,” said USDA sugar beet research technician Travis Vagher. “By limiting the amount of chemicals used, it increases their bottom line.”
Much of the farming progress has been aimed at efficiency and making up for a limited workforce pool. It has the Schlagels and other sugar beet farmers optimistic about the future of the storied crop.
A 2017 agreement with the government of Mexico could help increase prices of U.S. sugar, a product that’s purchased years in advance. There are now restrictions on how much Mexico can import to the U.S.
There are still some challenges.
Western Sugar Cooperative was fined $2 million by the state of Colorado in May for air, water and health violations at the Fort Morgan plant — odor complaints ran rampant in the city last year. The cooperative has agreed to clean up its issues.
But as the ups and downs of growing Colorado’s first cash crop continue, generational sugar beet farmers remain committed to growing it.
“We have made great strides,” Paul said. “We have been on this exact farm for more than 50 years and things have changed a lot.”