This story was first published Oct. 25, 2014, under the headline, “Sugar beets to sugar bag: Everything you never knew about what goes on inside Nampa’s Amalgamated plant, including why it smells.”
Paul Rasgorshek walked over rows of sugar beets, their stalks and thick leaves already lopped and picked up by machinery, leaving white nubs shining like white dollar coins as the beets awaited harvesting.
It was Oct. 16, a few days into the beet harvest at Rasgorshek Farms about 10 miles southwest of Nampa. Rasgorshek, like the rest of the beet farmers in the Treasure Valley, was working against the calendar to get his beets out of the ground and delivered by Thanksgiving.
The day before, his crews had to stop harvesting at 3 p.m. to prevent the beets from warming higher than the 55-degree maximum permitted by the buyer of all Idaho sugar beets, Amalgamated Sugar Co. This day was a little cooler, and Rasgorshek hoped his crews could work a longer day, running machinery that slices off the tops and harvesting the beets. Cloudy skies help.
“Most people don’t like inversions, but we love them,” Rasgorshek said. “It keeps them cold. With the big crops we had this year and last year, we’ll throw beets away if we aren’t careful.”
Sugar beets are big business in Idaho, where about 4,000 workers are directly involved in growing and harvesting beets and 1,500 work in processing. About 450 growers are members of the Snake River Sugar Co., the co-op that owns Amalgamated. The company buys all of the sugar beets harvested in Idaho, Washington and Oregon, and brings in around $1 billion a year in revenue.
The Nampa plant, which can be seen and smelled from Interstate 84, employs 400 Treasure Valley residents year-round, and an additional 100 during the five-month peak starting with the harvest.
This is Rasgorshek’s 32nd beet harvest. He farms 175 acres of sugar beets, a small sum considering the rest of his 5,200 acres are devoted to alfalfa seed, mint, wheat, onion and carrot seed.
Rasgorshek, 52, is optimistic his tonnage will beat last year’s yield of 43 tons per acre. He’s also hoping for higher than 17% sugar content, which affects the price he receives from Amalgamated.
Sugar beets are threatened in the Valley and across the U.S. A glut of sugar from Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere flooded the market and drove down prices for domestic growers. Idaho sugar beet cash receipts fell 37 percent during the past two harvests despite strong yields.
The fate of the domestic sugar industry might lie with a lawsuit filed by U.S. sugar processors — including Amalgamated — with the International Trade Commission charging that Mexico producers have strategically sold for less than market value in an effort to drive the U.S. producers out of business.
Rasgorshek keeps tabs on the lawsuit and sugar politics, but he’s more concerned with working his fields.
“We’ve had a lot of hard years, and we’re able to survive,” he said. “In agriculture, you get used to the highs and lows.”
Rasgorshek halved a beet with a long-handled pick tool called a beet knife and cut a thin slice of the tough, white flesh. It’s crunchy and sweet
In the coming weeks, the beets will be trucked to the Nampa plant, where they will be sliced, soaked and boiled into pure white sugar used in mass-produced foods and sold in stores across the country.
How beets become ready-to-eat sugar
The plant itself is a sweltering hot anthill of tubes, tanks and conveyer belts snaking to countless rooms on various floors, all playing a role in bringing you the sweet stuff you stir into your coffee and tea.
The process of turning beet to liquid to sugar is simple enough for folks with chemistry degrees. But for most of us, it looks like witchcraft without a cheat sheet for the process. Here’s how it happens.
STEP 1: OPENING THE FIELDS
Sugar beets are the first crop planted on the Rasgorshek farm in late March or early April and the last crop harvested before fields are prepped for winter.
The process starts by “opening” the field by running a defoliator machine that “tops” the plants and picks up the leafy stalks. Topped beets heat more quickly, so crews remove the tops only in fields they plan to harvest promptly.
STEP 2: HARVESTING
Next, three pieces of equipment work in concert. A tractor pulls a nine-row lifter/loader that turns the ground and pulls the beets onto a conveyer belt that feeds them into a truck.
More dirt and excess matter are knocked from the beets as they are fed and dumped onto a second conveyer belt that dumps the beets into a semitrailer truck. A driver takes the beets 12 miles east to a receiving station in Bowmont, south of Nampa. The crop is later trucked 12 miles north to the Amalgamated plant.
STEP 3: PILES
Amalgamated operates more than 75 receiving stations, including one at the plant itself, which serves as the ultimate destination for beets that farmers take to 31 stations. At the plant, “piler” machines unload about 400 trucks of beets per day.
STEP 4: BEET FLUME
Beets from the piles and from railroad cars are fed into a flume with running water that cleans the beets as it carries them into the plant to form an “underground river of beets,” says plant Technical Assistant Chemical Engineer Scott Kahre. The plant receives about 100 rail cars of beets per day, all grown around Pocatello.
STEP 5: THE SLICER
The washed beets are pushed through industrial slicers, each with 30 blades that cut the beets into waffle-cut slices called cossettes. Each cossette is 6 to 7 millimeters thick, maximizing surface area for water to later soak out the sugar.
A conveyer carries the cossettes, sticky from their sugar, to the diffuser. The slicing season, called a campaign, runs from October to February each year.
STEP 6: DIFFUSING
This big tank is where the cossettes are soaked in hot water, creating a hot juice. The beet cell walls begin breaking down, allowing sugar to diffuse from the cells into the liquid.
The solid matter falls to the bottom of the tank. The matter is removed, pressed to remove some of the water, and delivered on a conveyer belt to a steam-heated pulp dryer.
The result is the first useful byproduct of sugar: 600 tons per day of dried pulp pellets sold as high-grade dairy feed. The remaining juice in the diffuser contains about 15 percent solids, 85 percent of which are sugar.
STEP 7: THE LIMER AND CARBONATOR
This is one of the two stages involving more advanced chemistry.
Lime is burned in a kiln, producing calcined (burned) lime. The calcined lime reacts with carbon dioxide, then binds with the solids in the juice. This occurs in a series of tanks. The reaction creates a dark cake that is removed, boosting the sugar content of the dissolved solids still in the liquid — now called “clear juice” — to 90 percent or more.
The clear juice is run through softener tanks that work like water softeners to remove harsh nutrients. Then it runs through a sulfitation tank, where a small amount of sulfur dioxide is added to make the juice stable for long-term storage.
STEP 8: EVAPORATORS
Thin juice is about 85 percent water. It’s run through five evaporators using steam to boil the juice, reducing the water content to about 30 percent. The result is “thick juice,” as shown in the tube above. Thick juice is about 64 percent sugar.
Thick juice is run through a series of filters, including a 50-micron filtration system, to remove most of the remaining impurities. Up to 50 million gallons of thick juice can be stored at the Nampa plant for up to a year before being crystallized into solid sugar.
STEP 9: CRYSTALLIZATION
The thick juice is heated in 10,000-gallon tanks like this one nearly to the point where it will begin crystallizing.
To control how big the crystals grow, about a water bottle’s worth of fondant, a finer version of the stuff used in cake frosting, is added. The fondant introduces 5-micrometer crystals that kick off the process. The number of fondant crystals governs the quantity of crystals produced in the juice, resulting in crystals around the target size of four-tenths of a millimeter each.
Four-fifths of the juice becomes sugar. The rest becomes feed molasses, smaller amounts of which are made into desugarized molasses, dietary betaine and betaine molasses, which are used in animal feed. Betaine is a crystalline compound.
STEP 10: SPINNING AND DRYING
After crystallization, the still-wet sugar is spun in centrifuges to draw out syrup, like a washer machine on spin cycle. The sugar turns from dark brown to pure white in a matter of seconds as centrifugal force pulls the moisture from the crystals.
The sugar is then tumbled in a large dryer, similar to a clothes dryer. When dry, it’s weighed into half-ton batches and moved to storage silos, which together have a storage capacity of 40,000 tons.
STEP 11: WHERE SUGAR GOES
About 1,000 tons per day of sugar goes into rail cars designed to carry dry food to bulk customers, such as General Mills and Betty Crocker, which store the sugar in their own silos.
About 900 tons per day are packaged in various sizes of bags for commercial and retail use. McDonald’s buys four-pound sugar bags for its sweet-tea production.
Retail brands carrying Amalgamated sugar include WinCo, Western Family, Kroger and Amalgamated’s own brand, White Satin. Different brands sitting side by side on store shelves contain identical beet sugar produced at the same plant.
The bags are loaded onto pallets by hand or by robot, wrapped in plastic and loaded onto about 50 trucks each day.
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Sugar plant facts
Sugar beets come to the Amalgamated Sugar Co. plant in Nampa by truck from Southwest Idaho, Oregon and Washington, and by rail from Eastern Idaho.
The plant’s sugar production season is year-round, aside from a 30-day maintenance shutdown each spring.
The factory, which was built in 1942, is powered by a coal generator that produces up to 9 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 9,000 homes. The coal plant provides enough electricity for the plant between slicing campaigns. The plant consumes up to 14 megawatts of power during slicing campaigns.
About that smell
The odor produced by Amalgamated Sugar Co.’s Nampa plant is produced mostly when the sugary juice is boiled in the evaporators, plant Technical Assistant Chemical Engineer Scott Kahre said.
“This is just like if you boil a vegetable on your stove top at home,” he said. “Your kitchen will take on a characteristic odor. Multiply that odor by 12,000 tons per day, and you get the picture.”
The smell used to be worse. Before 2006, the plant dried beet pulp in rotary-drum dryers, which released pulp vapors into the atmosphere. Eight years ago, the plant invested $16 million in a steam-heated dryer, which is self-contained and recycles most of the vapors back to the factory for reuse.
Kahre said the plant might take more odor-reducing actions, but the smell isn’t going away anytime soon.