Sugar beets failed to generate big profits for farmers

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.

Last week’s column described the course of sugar beet cultivation in Wellington up to 1902, when a group of Peel Township farmers began shipping beets to the new sugar refinery at Bridgeport. 

This is the conclusion of the sugar beet story in Wellington County.

The first season’s production at the Ontario Sugar Company’s new Bridgeport refinery went smoothly, and its sugar, sold under the “Maple Leaf” brand name, sold well. Many consumers regarded the sugar, made locally from locally-grown beets, as something of a novelty. The company exploited the “made in Canada” concept, and actively promoted tours and visitors to the refinery, one of 17 built in Ontario between 1901 and 1904 with provincial subsidies.

The factory, in fact, became something of a tourist attraction. In October 1903 the Drayton Musical Society organized a special train trip from Palmerston and points south to the refinery, where the company offered lunch and various demonstrations.

One reason for those tours was to interest more farmers in growing sugar beets. With all the publicity, the company had no difficulty signing up new growers to replace those who had soured on sugar beets due to the time-consuming hand cultivation required.

The heaviest concentration of growers was in Waterloo Township. Many farmed close enough to the refinery to deliver their beets by horse-drawn wagon. Peel Township ranked second. Farmers there shipped their beets from the Alma Grand Trunk station, and later from Drayton and Moorefield as the sugar-growing area expanded.

In March 1904 representatives of the Ontario Sugar Company held meetings at Drayton and Moorefield to explain the cultivation of sugar beets and sign up new growers. By then some growers were attempting to deal with the labour demands of the crop by bringing families of Six Nations Indians to their farms for the summer. Others hired children from nearby towns for the summer, or employed newly-arrived immigrants who could speak little or no English and were desperate to gain a foothold in their new home. Farmers explored every avenue to find cheap labour, while the company gradually raised prices paid for the beets to hold on to its growers. After three seasons, notwithstanding the glowing predictions of 1901 and 1902, it was clear that the sugar industry would make no one rich. To maintain morale among growers, the Ontario Sugar Company hired a special train in October 1904 to bring Peel and Maryborough farmers for a visit to the refinery, complete with a meal and entertainment.

By then, though, the firm was losing contract growers faster than new ones could be signed up. 

In 1905 a representative of Ontario Sugar gave a talk at Roll’s Hotel in Moorefield and at the Drayton town hall on Jan. 20, attempting to interest area farmers in the crop and sign up contract growers before they decided on alternative crops. The firm followed up the meetings and personal visits with newspaper advertising nearer planting time.

An extra incentive that year was the offer by the company to return beet pulp as cattle feed to contract growers in carload lots after the sugar had been extracted. The firm told farmers that the pulp was an excellent food supplement for their herds. Some of the growers in Waterloo Township, nearer the refinery, had been using the pulp as feed since the operation began production in 1902. For those farmers declining the pulp, the firm offered an extra 50 cents per ton of beets shipped.

In 1905 Ontario Sugar managed to sign contracts for only 4,500 acres of beets, grown by 1,900 farmers in various areas across southern Ontario. The refinery required 5,000 to 6,000 acres to operate at full capacity.

Figures for 1906 were similar. That year 172 farmers in Peel and Maryborough cultivated sugar beets, with 286 acres under contract to the company. That worked out to less than two acres per grower, and represented about 6% of the company’s volume.

Two years later the Ontario Sugar Company hit the financial wall. In 1907 the operation lost money, and 1908 figures were even more dismal. Creditors closed in, forcing the sale of the refinery and its equipment. By then, of the 17 sugar refineries established in Ontario between 1901 and 1904, only those at Bridgeport and Wallaceburg remained. The Dominion Sugar Company, operator of the Wallaceburg operation, purchased the Bridgeport refinery. Local stockholders lost all their $100,000 investment, and the City of Berlin, which had given the plant a $25,000 subsidy, was left with a debenture debt that would not be paid off until 1932.

The new owners reopened the Bridgeport refinery, but soon encountered more trouble. In November of 1909 the deputy game warden for the area laid charges against the firm for polluting the Grand River and killing fish. 

For several years the provincial government had been stocking the river, and was closely monitoring the results. As a consequence of the episode the firm was forced to add equipment to treat the large quantities of effluent it produced. It appears that this was the first charge of pollution to be prosecuted on the Grand River.

Dominion Sugar kept the plant in production until the early 1920s, though on a reduced scale, handling production that could not be accommodated at Wallaceburg. Relations with local growers became ever more contentious, and the sugar beet acreage in Peel and Maryborough dwindled year by year.

Eventually Dominion Sugar viewed the Bridgeport location as costly and redundant. The firm closed the refinery and moved some of the machinery to Wallaceburg.

That seemed to be the end of sugar beets in Wellington, but 30 years later the crop enjoyed a renaissance. In the spring of 1952 the Canada and Dominion Sugar Company, owners of the Wallaceburg refinery, visited Peel and Maryborough to discuss sugar beet cultivation and sign up some contract growers.

As was the case 50 years earlier, old-time farmers were skeptical, but several recent Dutch immigrants, familiar with sugar beets in their native land, gladly signed up. 

In 1953, supported by government officials anxious to diversify agricultural crops, the company secured contracts with 20 local farmers to grow about 300 acres of sugar beets, a considerable increase over the 1952 acreage.

There had been doubts all winter about the financial viability of the crop, because Cuba was dumping large quantities of surplus sugar on the Canadian market. The situation took on a rosier glow when the federal minister of trade, C.D. Howe, announced an embargo on Cuban sugar to help the Canadian industry.

Local acreage expanded again in 1954. That was the year of Hurricane Hazel, and the wet weather and muddy fields slowed the harvest. The first shipment, of two cars, left the Drayton Canadian National station on Oct. 18, almost two weeks later than in 1953. The harvest was not fully under way until well into November. As of Nov. 8, 1954, Ralph Henry at the scales in Drayton had loaded 22 railway cars with 752 tons of beets. The 1953 area harvest had hit 1,900 tons, and growers anticipated a much heavier tonnage before all the 1954 crop was shipped. They were right: 1954 shipments from Drayton hit 2,700 tons.

Local growers, though, were not impressed with their returns from the 1954 crop. The Canada & Dominion Sugar Company, despite extensive advertising for growers, an increase in contract pricing and visits to farmers by its representatives, encountered much difficulty in signing up growers in the spring of 1955. Shipments from Drayton that fall totalled only 22 carloads, down 72% from 1954, and insufficient to support a loading facility there. Once again, the curtain was falling on sugar beet production in Peel and Maryborough.

The year 1956 was even worse for acreage. Only a handful of growers signed up, and some of them had their seed washed out by heavy spring rains. Beet growers elsewhere were also disillusioned with sugar beets, resulting in a total Ontario crop of only 14,000 acres that year. W.J. McGregor, president of Canada & Dominion Sugar, announced that the Wallaceburg plant would close permanently after 54 years of production, and all processing would be concentrated at the Chatham plant, but its continued existence was also in jeopardy. That year marked the end of the second sugar beet period in Peel and Maryborough.

Canadian sugar beet production has been declining for decades. The crop retained some importance in southwestern Ontario through the 1960s supplying the Chatham plant, but at present only a refinery in Taber, Alberta is processing sugar beets.

Could the sugar beet make a comeback as the source for ethanol, which seems to be growing daily as a politically fashionable alternative fuel? Could it be superior to corn as a source of fuel, and might we witness yet another renaissance of sugar beet cultivation in Wellington County?

Perhaps it best to leave that discussion to agronomists and agricultural economists.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on July 14, 2006.

Thorning Revisited