Article: Sugar From the Ground

By Mavis Thorpe Clark

Published in the The Saturday Evening Herald, 27 May 1933

Paid £1/7

At the moment, driving along any road that leads into the town of Maffra, travelers are likely to see an object which looks very much like a turnip, lying invitingly on the track. If they are new to Gippsland and fond of turnips, they may stop their car to pick it up, but if they are locals, they drive straight on.

The locals know sugar beet when they see it, and they now, too, that an open wagon, piled so high that some of the load has slipped down on to the road, has passed this way, bearing its burden to the beet sugar factory.

All the crops have not yet been lifted and these patches of cultivation are like green lakes in a setting of fields drab and brown after the dry spell. In tiny waves, the leaves ripple in the breeze, and the soft green is refreshing to eyes wearied of the brown dryness of the paddocks.

At the entrance to Maffra stands the factory – the only one of its kind in Australia. It was first opened in 1898, and has since grown to the fine structure it is today – a red brick building, four storeys high, with its chimney stack rising into the blue, a contradictory note in the country atmosphere. Here, during the crushing season, 272 persons are employed.

Sugar-beet growing has become increasingly popular in Gippsland since the fall in the price of grain and dairy produce. A number of farmers who, at one time, were rather contemptuous of the industry, are now anxious to turn beet-growers. Unfortunately the capacity of the factory is limited, and the management has refused to accept new growers.

The sale of the sugar is practically confined to Gippsland, except in the case of Government institutions.

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The beet, which forms underground and has a many-leaved top like ordinary beetroot grows best in black loamy soil, but, with irrigation, will also do well in the lighter chocolate soils. Planting time is from August to October, but first the ground must be lightly ploughed and worked fine, then ploughed again six to 12 inches deep, according to the depth of soil, and again worked fine, although the seed bed must be firm.

The seed is sown with a special drill, which does four rows at once, 18 inches apart, using about 12 lb. of seed an acre and usually one to three ewt. of superphosphate.

Once the beet is established the thinning process takes place. This is done by hand, using a short-handled chopping hoe and leaving single plants about a foot apart. This must be done thoroughly.

During most of the growing period, thorough cultivation is essential. The four-row beet-cultivator is used between the rows, and any weeds are cut out by hand. The beet has to be irrigated, and this is done from the channels which thread their way through the countryside like arrows, glinting veins. Usually, the grower waits until the beet is well established and the leaves cover the spaces between the rows before irrigating but, of course, it depends largely on the season.

The beet is a hardy plant and not much worried by possible early frosts, although the hot winds of January affect it rather badly, especially if the ground is dry. The cutworm which hatches in any low parts of the paddock is the worst pest, eating through the beet just below the crown and leaving rows of withered leaves in its wake. Another destructive element is the root wilt.

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A crop takes from six to nine months to grow, with an average yield of 12 tons per acre. The harvesting begins at the end of March and continues until the end of June. The machine mostly used for this purpose is the Riding Beet Lifter, drawn by two horses, which lifts one row at a time, having two shares which dig in each side of the beet and force it out.

The toppers then pull and shake the beets and throw them in rows, four rows on each side, and then, with long knives, cut off the leaves and crown and throw the topped beet in heaps about five yards apart, ready to be collected and carted to the factory.

Each beet weighs about two lb., the sugar content varying with the seasons. A good average is 15 per cent., although this year it is very high, being as much as 18 or 20 per cent.

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Scanned article.

Sugar from the Ground, The Saturday Evening Herald, 27 May 1933.

Having reached its destination, the beet is floated into the factory through the flumes to the washing machine, where it is thoroughly cleansed. An elevator then takes it to the top storey, where it is weighed and dropped into the slicing machine, after which it is boiled in huge saturation tanks, impregnated with lime fumes and lime water, and forced through filter presses – a juice like weak tea coming out.

This is followed by its being filtered through charcoal beds and treated with sulphur fumes to take out the rancid flavor. It must then be condensed to take off surplus water.

The most important part comes next – the boiling of the syrup to precipitate the sugar granules. During this process it is frequently tested on clean glass to note progress. It is then run to the centrifugals and the white sugar is separated from the molasses. The drying machine finishes the task of manufacture, after which the sugar is weighed and bagged.

The principal by-products are pulp and molasses. Pulp is eagerly purchased by dairy farmers for feeding to the cows, especially in seasons like the present, when green fodder is scarce.

Each tiny school in the district has its Young Farmers’ Club, and there is great rivalry as to which school shall produce the finest beet. If, by some chance, a beet is uprooted from the school plot, the children make short work of it, relishing its raw sweetness as much as town children do their purchased dainties.