Beets me!

Winter officially came to an end this week, I suppose that wind on Sunday was the Old Man slamming the door on his way out – brrr!  Maple season is now in full swing, and with the world slowly waking up, we also got into the greenhouse last week to start our first seeds of the season (primarily onions, but in the case below, lettuce).

The other new development was that Hiram learned how to make maple sugar.  It’s not as complicated as you might imagine, but through the right combination of heat and agitation, the thickened syrup suddenly transforms into granulated sugar right before your eyes.  It’s quite magical (which I suppose is the norm with all things maple).  Once it’s been sifted through a fine mesh screen, it is a nice, soft, powdery sugar, with nice tones of maple, about as “strong”, compared to white sugar, as brown sugar would be.   (We will have it for sale soon enough!)

Historically, maple syrup was a treat reserved for farmers, and maple sugar was the actual article of trade.  In a world without mass produced vessels or plastics, you can imagine that blocks of sugar would be much easier to transport and store than a liquid.  Likewise, in an era before international trade was fast, cheap or reliable, during the early years of settlement in North America, maple sugar was actually *the* primary sweetener in the localities it was produced.

Although eventually superseded in the consumer market by refined cane sugar from the West Indies (the old maple sugar boiled in giant cauldrons over open fires probably had quite the strong taste to it) maple sugar functioned as political statements in early American history.  First, leading up to the American Revolution, it became a symbol of Yankee sovereignty and a rejection of British taxation on imported Caribbean sugar.  A few generations later, the Abolitionist Movement rallied to maple sugar again, which this time came to symbolize protest against the slave trade.

Sugar is one of those things that we take for granted in the modern world: it’s so cheap and abundant we don’t even think about it.  We no doubt have too much of it.  Pure sugar, in the pre-industrial era was quite the rarity though, especially here in the the northern latitudes.  Isn’t it funny how the other traditional local source of sugar – honey – is as equally strange and magical as maple production?

In a way that is very typical of modern man, we found a way to drain all of the mystique out of sugar, and so instead of tiny insects carrying flower nectar, and ancient forest landmarks shedding their lifeblood, by the 19th century farmers and scientists developed a way to mechanize the production of sugar in the field outside of the tropics.

How did they do it?  Beets of course.  Oh you didn’t know that we get sugar from beets of all things?  Actually, almost two thirds of the sugar produced in the USA comes from beets, which have been bred to have upwards of 18% sugar content.  Lacking the romance of bees and trees, the industry doesn’t really bother advertising how the sausage gets made, as it’s all very typical of modern agriculture.

If you are curious, I highly recommend this video called The Sugar Beet Mafia, about a large concern producing beets in the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota (some of the best land in the world).  Nowadays, everyone calls themselves a “mafia”, but it is interesting to get some insight into how the industry functions.  When you see the amount of money flying around in this video you know that something is up….

The way it works is as such: there is a large sugar factory in Fargo that buys all of the beets.  But you have to have ownership stakes in the factory to sell to it.  This is reasonable enough, but limits opportunity to enter or compete within industry.  As I watched this, the first thing that came to mind was “Where does the government fit into all of this?”. 

Well, the US Department of Agriculture is very vocal that they in NO WAY subsidize the American sugar industry.  It’s true: rather than giving the growers tax money, they instead get the American consumer to subsidize it directly.  The USDA first of all limits imports of sugar: only 15% of the sugar consumed in the US can come from overseas.  Even more impressive, the USDA guarantees the price of sugar (at 2-3x the global commodity price) and furthermore, allocates production to specific refiners.  It turns out it is a cartel after all…

This is actually much more typical in agriculture than most of us realize; but these are huge industries, relying on multi-generational networks of patronage (sure would be nice to be a part of one of those!).  It’s certainly quite far from pure laissez faire capitalism, and because time is a flat circle, sugar will remain a political hot button in matters of labour, taxes, markets, and these days now, as a major health concern. 

In the meantime, we will scurry about the woods, get the fire a-blazing and make sugar the old fashioned way for our friends, as we wait on the the growing season to come.

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