Reports from the Taber area that there are problems with harvesting this years sugar beet crop brings to mind what could have been and what should have been.
No this not about the state of the harvest which by the way has to be one of the most heart-breaking. Beet yields this year were the best in many years and so were sugar prices.
Growers are paid on sugar content and tonnage. It would have been a very good year for a change. But an early frost killed off the tops which then makes harvesting and particularly beet processing much more difficult.
The sugar plant has been working flat-out trying to process the crop but its a struggle, they normally store beets and process them well into April.
It brings to mind what this crop once meant to the economy of southern Alberta and Canada. At one time there were plants in Raymond and Picture Butte and finally the last one in Taber, which is also the last sugar beet plant of its kind in Canada.
At one time there were sugar beet plants in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, but they all fell victim to Canadian government sugar trade politics that basically doomed the industry beginning in the 1960s. How the plant still manages to survive in Taber is no doubt a story by itself.
When one looks back on the industry starting in Alberta around 1902 by Mormon settlers and the Knight Sugar Company it was a significant agricultural crop driven by the availability of irrigated land.
Its biggest drawback from a production aspect, till mechanization and herbicides, always was labour.
It seemed that the only way to keep costs down was to exploit the cheap labour of some ethnic or economically disadvantaged group – natives were always a source, then came jobless folks during the great depression, then came the Japanese from internment camps and then came post-war Europeans. In the end mechanization and chemicals changed the sugar beet production business.
But the real battle for survival was in trying to process and sell sugar for the Canadian market.
It’s one of those instances where our own Canadian government became the enemy and willfully destroyed a viable industry for the sake of a boy scout trade policy.
It was also another example of how easily Canadian trade politicians and bureaucrats are so willing to give our agriculture away.
It’s an ominous reality that our profitable supply-managed dairy and poultry industries are now facing at World Trade Organization (WTO) trade talks.
For many years, the Canadian sugar market was protected by tariff and quota walls. This kept out cheap cane sugar, but not all of it.
Sugar from commonwealth countries like Australia and Caribbean sugar from British colonies was given preferential trade access. However, sometime in the 1960s the Canadian government basically removed all trade barriers for sugar from the commonwealth countries and colonies. Shortly thereafter sugar companies began closing plants in Quebec, Ontario and finally Manitoba. Now the sugar companies were not entirely innocent victims.
That industry was always something of a cartel with only a few processors who were also importers. No doubt they figured that with the tariffs gone, it was a good excuse to give up Canadian sugar production and increase the importation of cheap cane sugar. And so the fate of the sugar beet industry was sealed.
Compare that situation with the United States of America were sugar production to this day is protected by a tariff wall and lavished with subsidies.
Say what you want about that approach, but the remaining sugar beet growing and processing industry contributes millions to local agricultural economies in a number of states.
I should say the US also has a significant sugar cane growing industry. Interestingly for awhile there were sugar beet growers in Ontario exporting raw beets to Michigan until that loophole was closed by the US government (where was the North American Free Trade Agreement you might wonder).
In Europe many countries also have significant sugar beet growing industries that are protected through Economic Union tariffs.
An economic study once concluded that the difference between sugar beet growers in Canada supplying the entire Canadian market and cheap imported cane sugar was somewhere around 10 cents a pound to the consumer.
Would the Canadian consumer have ever noticed the actual difference – I think not but for that 10 cents the Canadian government basically wiped out our domestic Canadian sugar growing industry. I wish the Taber plant and growers every success they deserve everyone’s admiration if only for sheer perseverance and guts.