Water for Sugar Beet Farming

Sugar beets played an important role in agriculture in the Cache la Poudre River Basin for the first half of the twentieth century. After Fort Collins and other Front Range towns built beet sugar processing factories in 1902 and 1903, farmers in Larimer County grew more of these sugar-filled roots than any other crop except hay and wheat for fifty years. In the 1880s and 1890s, scientists at the State Agricultural College in Fort Collins had discovered beets grown in Colorado often contained a sugar content of fifteen to seventeen percent, much higher than the needed twelve percent. Beets grown in Northern Colorado received the “optimum balance of minerals, water, and abundant sunlight [which] permitted the beet to maximize the manufacture of sugar,” with one important exception—the amount of water available in the summer.1 Winter snows, late spring snows, and modest rainfalls during the summer were not enough for water-hungry beets. Despite Northern Colorado’s cool summer nights, the often dry summer months of June, July, and August jeopardized sugar beet crops. Therefore, farmers who grew beets built and used an extensive system of canals and laterals to moisten their fields.2

This field of sugar beets emphasizes the water-intensive nature of the journey of sugar from beets-in-the -fround to table.

This field of sugar beets emphasizes the water-intensive nature of the journey of sugar from beets-in-the -ground to table.

Beet sugar production required large quantities of water in both field and factory. A sugar beet has three parts: a large central root (the part used to make sugar), a tap root (to pull water from deep in the ground), and a beat top (the leafy greens that emerge from the central root). Beet plants, composed of 75 to 80 percent water in the root and 90 percent water in the leaves, could suck up and emit up to 15 gallons of water through a single plant over the course of the growing season. Experts encouraged light, frequent irrigation throughout the summer in Northern Colorado. During the height of sugar production in the 1930s, Larimer and Weld Counties planted over 100,000 combined acres of sugar beets, so irrigation required huge quantities of water from the rivers that ran through the counties, including the Cache la Poudre River. In Fort Collins, some farmers with sugar beet fields located close to the Great Western Sugar Company factory used wastewater to irrigate and fertilize their fields. The rest had to secure irrigation water from the area’s other irrigation canals. Also, while the Great Western Sugar Company factory operated in Fort Collins from 1903 through 1954, it used as much as five million gallons of water per week. Added to that were the water needs of the many people who worked on beet farms or at the beet factory, most of whom immigrated from Russia or Mexico. Many chose to stay, contributing to Fort Collins’ population growth, and placed greater and greater demands on the Cache la Poudre River. Failure to procure enough water, combined with pest problems and high production costs, eventually led Great Western Sugar to close its Fort Collins factory fifty years after opening them. However, the water delivery system farmers and industrialists had built to water beets and produce sugar remained to be used to grow other crops, such as corn, and to manufacture other products, such as beer.3

  1. Eric Twitty, “Silver Wedge: The Sugar Beet Industry in Fort Collins,” (Loveland, CO: SWCA Environmental Consultants, 2003): 5.
  2. Agricultural Experiment Station, “Bulletin No. 11: Sugar Beets, Fort Collins, Colorado,” State Agricultural College, April 1890; The United States Beet Sugar Association, The Silver Wedge: The Sugar Beet in the United States, (Washington, D.C.: United States Sugar Beet Association, 1936): 29, 41-51.
  3. The Silver Wedge, 47, 51; Ron Sladek, “Great Western Sugar Historic Nomination Form,” (Historic Context Report, City of Fort Collins, 2013), 20-21, 25; Twitty, “Silver Wedge,” 57.

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