WHAT’S THAT growing west of the Lexington High School Greenhouse…and Why?

June 15, 2015

Those who have lived around Lexington for a while will recognize the plants as sugar beets.  They were grown around here a few years back.  They are still grown in the Nebraska Panhandle, Northeast Colorado, and select areas in other states.  Many people driving by the small patch at the school have pulled off the road to visit.  These beet bring back a lot of memories for some.

Brad Schott, Lexington’s Ag Instructor, went home in early April to visit family near Sterling Colorado.  He was raised on a farm there, and remembers spending many weeks each summer while in grade school, thinning and hoeing beets.  He thought they would make good teaching material from a number of standpoints.  He procured some seeds from his sister and some from his cousin.  To Lexington they came, and in the ground they went.

Most farmers, after WWII, used migrant labor from Texas or Mexico to work the beets.  Schott’s father had five kids that he “employed” for the task.  Schott happily remembers when his dad said, “this is the last year I’m ever going to grow beets”, and he held to it.  Problem was, he replaced them with Pinto Beans which still required lots of hoeing.  This might have been his way of keeping track of us. “There they are..,one, two, three, four, five, scattered out in the field…Looks like one’s a loner… must have a hard row to hoe.” 

Beets, historically have been a good cash crop, but they were very labor intensive.  Schott’s grandfather said  the main qualification needed to raise beets was a “weak mind and a strong back”.  Farmers use to use a “beet knife" (see pic) with a hook on the end to pull the beets from the ground and cut the tops off.  The beet were put into piles and then shoveled onto a horse drawn wagon.  From there they went to the “beet dump” to be piled for storage before being processed at a local plant.  Most of the processing plants near the Platte were built in the early 1900’s.

During WWII, German prisoners of war were shipped over to work the fields.  Schott’s grandfather used them.  They actually had it good, and were glad to be working fields in the US rather than fighting overseas.  Schott’s grandparents were fluent in German, and would cook up traditional German food for the workers. What better place to be during the war if you were a German?  It almost felt like home considering all they had in common.

Before development of mono-germ varieties, each sugar beets seed would sprout multiple plants, requiring “stoop” labor using a “short hoe” to thin to one single plant.  Migrant workers referred to this hoe as El brazo del diablo, "the devil s arm”.  In the 70’s, Schott’s dad threw out the pile of short hoes he had in in the shop.   Until 2008, when Roundup Ready beet seeds were developed, beets still required hoeing two to three times a summer due to their inability to compete with weeds. They are slower growing than most weeds and form weak canopy.  Sugar beets can easily get as large as a football, so the plants need to be thinned to around 10-12 inches apart.  Weeds also exploit this necessary spacing.  Early in the season, if you just worked a field and it rained, sprouting new weeds, it was sharpen up the hoes again.

So, what will happen to the beets at the school?  A few will be processed into sugar and molasses as class projects. Teachers from other schools are excited to use these in their Consumer Science and Food Science Classes.  There is also rich agriculture history with the beets.  Many Nebraskans are descendants of the Volga German-Russians who brought the seeds over from Russia and established them as a major US crop.  Today the beet provides half the the sucrose we use, the other half coming from sugar cane.  This fact offers lessons in politics, and farm policy, primarily as it relates to imports and exports of sugar. 

Finally sugar beets are getting a second look as an animal feed due their efficient use of nitrogen and water.  Most of the beets at the school will probably go this route.  If you’ve ever seen a pig attack a sugar beet, you will understand the full meaning of “eating like a pig”!

If you have stories about raising beets, especially if you have ever had to use a beet knife, Mr. Schott would like to talk to you, especially if you are capable of giving some students a demonstration on pulling and topping beets by hand.  bradley.schott@lexschools.org