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Sugar factory tour

December 22, 2010

The wonders never cease here in western Nebraska.

I got to tour a sugar factory!

This tour was not a journalistic privilege. The Scottsbluff/Gering United Chamber of Commerce, in cooperation with Western Sugar Cooperative and other sponsors, has hosted a factory tour for the general public for eight years now, to raise money for agricultural scholarships.

This tour is so cool and so unusual (only held once a year) that people came all the way from Des Moines, Iowa, and somewhere in Kansas to participate this year. I’m glad I was one of the 40 people who had the chance to go. I’ve wanted to see how sugar is produced in person ever since I moved here, as mentioned in one of the earlier blog posts I wrote.

I wrote a column for the newspaper about the tour also, but due to space limitations, I had to cut the text from about 810 down to some 550 words. But here on my blog, space is unlimited . . . mwhahaha!! (And, I can include links and pictures!)

In case anyone was too lazy to look up the Sesame Street sugar beet earworm mentioned in my column, or if you clicked on the link on my sugar beet post while the link was dead, here it is.

One part I cut out of my column was my fascination with the chemistry side of sugar production. I have a background in science. During the pre-tour conference-room presentation, I tried to pay attention to the chemistry bit at the same time that interesting samples taken from the production process were passed around the room. Maybe if I had been sitting in the front row, I could have paid better attention, but by the time the relevant samples got back to me, the commentary had long since moved on to another topic and I can’t successfully hold two new, rapid-fire chemistry concepts in my head at the same time anymore. That skill is a little rusty. Next time I take the tour, I will sit in front.

One part of the sugar beet harvest process I found interesting was the rush to harvest the beets out of the ground during the “beet campaign.” A gajillion semitrucks hit the roads to haul the beets to collection points (I think there is a term for them – depots?) where they are piled in huge stacks, and the sugar cooperative hopes the weather cooperates.

The beets need to stay consistently cool. Freeze-thaw, a common occurrence here, turns the beets to mush and makes them unusable. They have started to cover the beet piles with hay bales to regulate the temperature. They do flyovers with infrared cameras (!) to determine which piles are heating up the most and use those first.

(Note: there are more beets harvested in the area than there is space around the sugar factory to pile them, so beet piles in other areas are built. When the piles around the sugar factory run low, the “rehaul” trucks swing into action to transfer beets nearer the factory.)

Here come the factory pictures! In many of them, I’m not exactly sure what’s pictured. Our group of ten plus two tour guides wore ear plugs to protect against the din of the machinery, so it was a little hard to hear a lot of detail. Plus, I was on sensory overload. I was content to just experience rather than analyze the factory this time around.

Note on the tour conditions: I totally see why they only do this tour once a year, limit it to 40 people, limit it to adults only, and ask that everyone wear close-toed shoes and long pants. A factory can be a dangerous place. Plenty of stuff to bump into and trip on and get caught in and get burned by if you’re not careful.

In case you don't know what one looks like, this is a sugar beet. The tap root, which breaks off during harvest, can grow 6 feet deep!

The beets come into the factory from outside. Duh. There is a beet truck there in the picture, visible between the pipes, but I was distracted by the beautiful twilight view of town with the bluffs in the distance.

Here was another distracting outdoor view (slightly out of focus in this picture): the half-full moon rising over the factory's stacks.

I didn't realize it, but the sugar factory has a coal furnace to power various processes in the factory. It was impressively large.

A factory worker who was appropriately grubby with coal dust opened a door in the furnace and gave us a mask to view the flames with. Apparently, much like with the sun, you can't view the flames directly without destructively toasting your eyeballs. (The guy in the photo is a fellow tour-taker.)

Even with the protective view shield, the flames were too intense to capture with my camera. The hairs on my neck and arms stood up a little when I viewed those intense, dancing blue flames. Kinda like the time I looked a wild lion in the eye, my primitive brain knew I was looking at possible death. I was glad I was wearing thick jeans. I felt a spark land on my leg.

The sugar factory was built in 1910, and a lot of the original structure still stands, which impresses the heck out of me, given the potentially destructive steam and vibration it gets exposed to. There were tons of visually interesting examples of old brick and metal beams, but I didn't photograph much of it. I figured it was impolite, like taking pictures of a spectacularly wizened old stranger. So, this photo is just a taste. The factory also has an insulated, air-conditioned "brain" of a computer center nestled within the loud, hot, humid factory. Such a contrast!

Beets come into the factory and get a good washing off. You can't see the beets bobbing around in this picture, but they are there, under the muddy water.

The beets get sliced into what looks like waffle-fry or shoestring-potato shapes called "cossettes" and conveyored off into a steamy place. (0:51 in the Sesame Street vid.)

Here, some samples from the production process are checked for sediment.

I don't know what was going on with these machines, but I (barely) heard te tour guide say something about vaccum. I just think it looked cool in a steampunk kind of way.

A heated sugary mix blurps like a hot mud spring.

Here is the view through the microscope-like eyepiece as described in my column: "tanks full of golden-brown liquid in which sparkling sugar crystals swam." This was one of the last steps in the sugar production process: crystalization. (0:55 in the Sesame Street vid, though they had a different kind of tank and viewing window.) Looks like the sun, doesn't it? Appropriate, given that the sun's energy was captured in chemical form by the green leaves of the sugar beet plant, thus leading to this energy-bearing chemical we call sugar.

Also as described in my column, the spinning of brown liquid away from white sugar crystals. Centrifuges are fun! (At 1:04 in the Sesame Street vid, the guy is reaching into one of these types of “white centrifuge.”) Note: the floor around the centrifuges was like the floors in movie theaters where soda is often spilled but seldom cleaned . . . sticky!

Brown.

Less brown.

White!

Note: to get brown sugar from beet sugar, you have to spray the white crystals with cane molasses. Beet molasses is pretty bitter stuff. Raw, muscovado, turbinado and demarara sugars are made from sugarcane. Read more about brown sugar here.

On to the packaging plant, where it was cooler and drier and brighter.

Powdered sugar packaging machine. I have many pictures of the packaging machinery, but they're pretty boring without all the motion and noise of the in-person experience.

There was a lot of spilled sugar and sugar precursors around the factory. I wondered about ants. They must work really hard to keep ants from finding the smorgasbord. On the floor in one stairway, I saw an “integrated pest management” device. Aha!

Here is one view of the production line that got another tune from Sesame Street humming in my brain. Maybe it was all the metal railings.

Another note: it’s true what you’ve heard about brand-name versus generic commodities. They are exactly the same, except for the packaging. (This does not hold true for more recipe-based things like Cheerios. I hate generic Cheerios.)

Doesn’t matter if the packaging says IGA …

… or Great Value …

… the sugar inside those bags came from the same place.

At the factory, they said you could tell the origin of a bag of sugar by the letter in front of the production code stamped on the bag. All product codes from the Scottsbluff factory start with the letter “F”.

I went home and looked at the bags of sugar in my cupboards, which came from local stores. One said “M”, one said “N”.

What the heck?!?? I have a sugar factory a few miles from my house and the sugar I got at the grocery store comes from another city?? That makes about as much sense as airline routes.

That ends my post on the sugar factory tour, so appropriately held during high holiday baking season.

If you want to learn more, try to get yourself signed up for the next tour, in December 2011. They usually start advertising it in early November, I think.

Copyright 2010 by Katie Bradshaw

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Rick Myers permalink
    December 23, 2010 6:55 am

    Great job! My grandfather was superintendent of several Great Western Sugar Co. plants from Montana to Colorado and I have always had a bit of “sugar tramp” in me. I was the first reporter on the scene when the Scottsbluff sugar factory exploded in 1996 and was fortunate enough to watch it emerge from the rubble of that night into what it is today. Glad you got a chance to tour, plus preserve a lasting visual documentation of the process.

  2. December 23, 2010 7:51 am

    Great post Katie, now I want to take the tour! I love the “sugarbeet view” picture, the one with the twilight view. Is your article for the Star-Herald on line?

    • Katie Bradshaw permalink*
      December 23, 2010 12:54 pm

      Yes. There was a link in the post there somewhere.

  3. December 31, 2010 6:55 pm

    SSaweett!!

  4. belenette permalink
    June 17, 2011 8:39 pm

    Why are there no ants in a sugar- factory?

  5. gladys permalink
    October 30, 2011 4:13 am

    I have visited many sugar cane factories where they make sugar, but I am still amazed why are the NO ANTS IN A SUGAR FACTORY. Can someone give me an answer?

    When I leave crumbs or something sweet on the table, many ants will come in15 mins…

  6. Richard McKlem permalink
    April 10, 2013 1:34 pm

    Katie,
    I was an Electrician from 1970 to 1975 at the scottsbluff factory I lived in scottsbluff from 1966 when I got out of the air force til I moved to california in 1979. I remember hearing about the explosionn and didn’t know what happened to the factory until today was thinking about old times, and decided to look it up, and run onto your tour of the factory.I looked at the pictures, and it brought back old memories things look different,but since I left, Im sure things will change. I hope you enjoyed your tour. making sugar is a facinating experience. Was glad to see they rebuilt it and is up and running. I know the farmers and people depend on the beets. My Name is Richard McKlem , I hope I didn’t bore you with my rambling, but I could tell you a lot of stories about my time at the factory.
    thanks for listening to an old man ramble. Good luck to and god Bless.

    • Katie Bradshaw permalink*
      April 12, 2013 8:47 pm

      Richard, thank you so much for commenting! I’m glad my post brought back memories for you. I am now working in a history museum and have learned a lot about how sugar beets have influenced the valley. Very interesting stuff!

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