A visit to the Sugar Beet Museum

It just seemed right to visit the Sugar Beet Museum while we are here for the sugar beet harvest. Besides we have plenty of time since we haven’t worked in a week and probably won’t be back to piling beets for another day or more while the fields dry out.

I called the number listed on the website and connected with a gentleman named Alan. From our conversations I figured out that he is a retired sugar beet farmer and has been instrumental in starting the museum. He was, of course, happy to meet up with us so we could see the museum. I let some new friends know about the arrangement and their family joined us for the adventure.

The building was not difficult to find since it has a huge sign on the end that says Sugar Beet Museum. Alan gave us a guided tour through the museum starting with one of the earliest tractors to some of the modern methods used. I really enjoyed hearing about the machinery from someone who was knowledgeable and passionate about it. I want to try in a future year to make it to Crookston before the harvest so I can see the antique machinery run on their harvest festival the second weekend of September.

When I decided to come to the sugar beet harvest I wasn’t sure what to expect, although I knew we wouldn’t be pulling the beets out of the ground like some people have asked about. Even back near the beginning of th 20th century they had a horse driven plow and then tractors to do the work of pulling the beets out of the ground. That’s about the only thing that has stayed the same.

In the early days of sugar beet harvesting after the beets were pulled out of the ground then people would have to manually go through the field row by row. They would pick up a beet and chop off the greens with a machete. Beets were then thrown in one pile and the greens in another. Four rows of beets with tops would eventually be in one row. Greens would be in another row to be gathered after the harvest for livestock feed. Then they had to go through the field with a fork, similar to a pitch fork but a little larger, and put the beets in a vehicle to take to where they would be sold. There they had to shovel them out with the fork.

That was a lot different from the modern day harvesting we have seen this summer, but seeing the different points of progression was interesting. The tractors had more and more adaptations to not just pull the beets out of the ground, but to chop the tops off the beets first and transport them to a conveyor belt after. The belt lifted them up to where they could be dumped into a vehicle. Early versions required one or more people to stand at the top of the belt to sort the beets from the dirt or mud. As the tractors and adaptations progressed they covered more and more rows until today, I think he said, they have harvesters that will do 32 rows at a time. They did not have any of the new harvesters in the museum, but from vidoes I know that the new machines operate in a similar fashion. These days the green tops are mowed off before the beets are plowed up. Then as the beets are lifted from the ground they are tumbled to remove as much dirt and mud as possible before being transported to the truck. Today’s trucks also don’t require scooping out the beets with a fork although the dirt that is returned to their trucks often has to be scooped out manually.

Another interesting evolution of machinery is the beet thinner. Just seeing the several units on the stand I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, but as Alan explained it I understood. In early beet farming the beet seeds were not always good about growing so you would plant lots of seeds and then manually thin them. The first machines to help thin the beets would just cut at the earth wherever you pointed it. An improvement tried using a sensor eye, but wasn’t good at distinguishing between weeds, beets or chunks of dirt. And then the sensor would get dirty and just constantly chop at the ground. Another one tried sensing electrical current. Finally, Alan said, farmers figured out that they could just plant them several inches apart and spray round up in between and not have to worry about thinning them out.
Another interesting advancement was to coat the seeds with clay. This allowed uniformity in side and shape so it would be easier to plant automatically.

I would love to see a model in the museum showing how they used to pile the beets and even a replica of today’s piler. I imagine one day they will have this since the museum is still very young and is growing all the time.

Youtube video of our visit:

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