Sugar beets failed to become a popular county crop

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

The agricultural history of Wellington County is a fascinating subject. 

A century ago Wellington was considered to be one of the most important agricultural counties in Ontario. 

Today agriculture remains the leading industry, even though it provides direct employment to a smaller and smaller portion of the population, and is often ignored in the development of public policies.

Over the decades the dominant crops have changed, and some exotic ones have been attempted from time to time. In the 1850s and 1860s wheat dominated the agricultural economy. There was once a significant flax growing industry, for both oil seed and fibre. 

Wellington once produced mountains of potatoes, and during the early years of the 20th century hemp was grown experimentally in one of the attempts to break the binder twine monopoly, which used imported fibre.

Among the significant minor crops was sugar beet growing. Interestingly, that crop was advocated more than 150 years ago, in the pioneer phase of Wellington’s agriculture. The leading advocate back then was a government official from Hungary, exiled from his homeland when the Hungarian independence movement of 1848-49 collapsed under the combined military intervention of Austria and Russia.

During the first half of the 19th century the sugar beet industry gained a strong foothold through much of Europe. The argument was that it could do equally well in Canada, where the climate was similar and imported sugar was expensive.

Over a period of several years the Hungarian spoke to most of the agricultural societies in Wellington and elsewhere in the area, urging sugar beet cultivation as a lucrative cash crop, and the establishment of refineries as a good local industry. 

Farmers listened, but made no plantings of beets. It was a classic economic stalemate: there was no point in planting a crop that could not be sold, and no one wanted to build a refinery until there was an ample local crop of sugar beets.

A quarter century later, the concept of a domestic sugar industry surfaced again. This time the idea was to build a local industry to replace a product that was imported, thereby providing both employment and lower prices for consumers. 

Perhaps the most vocal advocate of sugar beets in the 1870s was Dr. George Orton of Fergus, who sat as the MP for Centre Wellington. 

The doctor’s policy, which would have provided a new cash crop to farmers at a time when farm incomes were declining, and provided new industries in small towns that were struggling, seemed to be a very sensible one, but farmers did not take him seriously. In Ottawa, Dr. Orton could not persuade the government to support the idea with start-up financial incentives.

At that time there were only two refineries in Canada. One, at Halifax, was the ancestor of the Lantic brand of sugar and operated intermittently. The other, and much larger one, was the Redpath operation in Montreal. Both relied exclusively on imported sugar cane.

Neither operation was very profitable, due to the dumping of surplus sugar by American and British refineries on the Canadian market at less than their cost. That meant a short-term benefit for consumers, but over the long haul the sporadic dumping made sugar prices volatile.

The federal government eventually slapped a 35% duty on imported refined sugar. As well as a benefit to Redpath, the duty provided sufficient incentive for new refineries: three in the Maritimes, and one near Windsor, Ontario.

In 1881, due partially to the constant lobbying by Dr. Orton on the Macdonald cabinet, the federal government announced that sugar produced domestically from beets would be exempt from excise duty, and sugar-making machinery would be free of import duties. 

Despite the incentives, sugar beets did not become a significant crop. Several small sugar beet refineries in southern Ontario, including the largest at Tillsonburg, all failed financially during the 1880s. Another, at Owen Sound, operated only briefly in the 1890s before failing in 1896.

During the 1890s the Oliver Mowat government in Ontario picked up the domestic sugar concept. The Department of Agriculture and the Ontario Agricultural College at Guelph conducted experiments in several localities, cultivating beets and testing them for sugar content. Impressed with the results, the Ontario government established a fund in 1901 to be shared by new refineries established during the following three years.

The result was a flurry of construction, with 17 new refineries built. Sites included Chatham, London, Baden and Bridgeport. Some of the entrepreneurs were Americans experienced in the sugar industry, but squeezed out of the American market by the Sugar Trust, a conglomerate that controlled more than 90% of U.S. production.

Locally, the Bridgeport operation was the most significant. Organized in 1901 as the Ontario Sugar Company by a man named Hugh Blain and his associates in Toronto, the company attracted $100,000 in local investments in Waterloo and Wellington Counties, and a subsidy of $25,000 from the city of Berlin (now Kitchener) plus property tax concessions.

During the summer of 1901 the Ontario Agricultural College set up a couple of dozen test plots in Waterloo Township. The plant would require a minimum of 60,000 tons of beets each year, and the managers realized they would need to generate interest well beyond Waterloo Township. The factory promised to pay $4 per ton for beets testing 12% sugar; more for higher sugar content.

The factory complex, on the Grand River just below Bridgeport, was one of the larger industrial sites in the region, sprawling for a quarter of a mile along the Grand River. It went up during the summer of 1902. The city annexed a portion of the township to incorporate the factory site into the city. Much of the equipment for the plant came from a closed refinery in Michigan. The firm paid $350,000 for it; the equipment had cost more than $600,000 a couple of years earlier. Capacity was 400 tons per day. The Grand Trunk constructed a railway siding to serve the plant.

The factory promised to have a payroll of 300, but it would operate at full capacity only about three months per year. Still, that was a significant boost to the local economy.

Agents for the Ontario Sugar Company began scouring the area in the spring of 1902, attempting to sign up contract growers. They found several farmers in the Alma area willing to experiment with the crop. 

The agents encountered much skepticism, but news that another sugar refinery was under construction at Wiarton eased concerns. With more than one plant in the region, potential growers would not be captive to a single buyer. In any case, the reception to the concept of sugar beet cultivation was less than overwhelming, and the company went as far as the Toronto area to fill its quota of 5,000 acres.

Cultivation of the beets was labour intensive. The crop required constant hoeing by hand to eliminate weeds and to mound up soil on top of the beets. Most growers signed up for only an acre or two. According to the company’s figures, farmers would gross about $50 per acre for the crop.

Good weather in late October and early November eased the task of Peel Township beet growers in harvesting their first crop. Wagon loads arrived daily at the Alma railway station for shipment to the new plant near Bridgeport. 

Unfortunately, 1902 figures for the sugar beet acreage and total production in Peel do not seem to have survived, but it was sufficient to keep loading activities at Alma operating constantly for more than a month. Loading the crop required weighing and some specialized handling equipment. That was a reason why the Ontario Sugar Company preferred to have a number of growers clustered around a shipping point.

Refining began on Oct. 9, 1902. The Berlin Board of Trade turned the day into a public holiday, with tours of the plant, band music and a parade, aimed specifically at potential growers in the region.

The company bagged the sugar under the “Maple Leaf” brand, and embellished the patriotic image by announcing that it was the first sugar made in Canada from Canadian beets. That statement was a grossly misleading, but it generated much interest in the product and in potential growers.

Sugar beet growers, though, were less enthusiastic. The crop required much more labour and attention than they had been led to believe. It was a reasonable cash crop,but not one that would bring them overnight fortunes.

(Next week: The continuing story of sugar beets in Wellington County.)

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on July 7, 2006.

Thorning Revisited