Spurring sweet success
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Thanks to Michigan State University, a sweet partnership has helped resurrect Michigan’s $444 million sugar beet industry.
In 1996 the industry was in peril. Yields hit an all-time low due to pest, disease and production issues that greatly reduced crop health. Farmers were looking to get out of sugar beet farming and switch to more profitable crops. Industry representatives reached out to MSU to help solve the problem.
Working with the Michigan Sugar Co., MSU spearheaded the creation of the Michigan Sugar Beet Advancement program, an interdisciplinary team of scientists, industry representatives and farmers. Together, they have resurrected the state’s sugar beet industry, boosting production more than 80 percent in 15 years, establishing Michigan as the nation’s fourth-leading sugar beet producer and giving the state an indirect economic boost of $1 billion, said Steve Poindexter, MSU Extension educator.
"Fifteen years ago, the sugar beet industry in Michigan was struggling to survive," said Poindexter, who works with MSU’s Saginaw Valley Research and Extension Center, an MSU AgBioResearch center. "Industry representatives came to MSU seeking a way to fund a position to do research and education outreach to help improve the sugar beet crop. This is a great success story that was definitely a team approach."
The team quickly began tackling 30 critical issues, such as poor emergence of plants, diseases and nematodes (parasitic worms that attack roots). They also promoted the adoption of new tillage practices, using primed (pre-germinated) seed, planting earlier, evaluating new varieties through field trials on farmers’ lands as well as improving the beets’ sugar quality.
“Through our research, we’ve been able to improve sugar content from 16 percent to 18 percent, which increases farmers’ profits without them having to farm any additional acreage,” said Paul Pfenninger, Michigan Sugar Co.’s vice president of agriculture. “Our goal is to continually improve this percentage and eventually reach 19 percent in the near future.”
These advancements have allowed Michigan growers to produce 4 million tons of sugar beets, which translate to 1 billion pounds of white sugar. In terms of jobs, there are now 1,100 farm families raising sugar beets, and 2,300 full- and part-time people working at Michigan Sugar Co.
"We’ve improved sugar content and nutrient management, which has vastly increased yields and enhanced crop quality," Poindexter said. “Essentially, we’ve made sugar beets the crop of choice in this region.”
Michigan State University has been working to advance the common good in uncommon ways for more than 150 years. One of the top research universities in the world, MSU focuses its vast resources on creating solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, while providing life-changing opportunities to a diverse and inclusive academic community through more than 200 programs of study in 17 degree-granting colleges.