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II. The Development of the Sugar Beet in Europe

II. The Development of the Sugar Beet in Europe

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cism, obstacles, and disappointments had to be met until, finally, practicality was proved; but neither reward nor recognition in his own time

was to come to the discoverer. Achard, working with crude plant material, probably not greatly unlike our mangel-wurzels, developed

effective processing methods and, with facile pen and great generosity

of spirit, made his discoveries freely known to the world. From this

beginning trace all the developments of the beet sugar industry of Germany, France, Austria, and other countries. Agricultural economists

point out that the contribution of the sugar beet was not alone the

sugar from its roots but the revolutionary effects it brought about in

European agriculture, essentially changing farming from a constant

cropping with small grains to a system of rotated crops. In a region

where corn was not grown, the sugar beet produced this change by supplying through its tops, crowns, and pulp, the feedstuffs necessary to

foster the livestock industry. Small grains no longer were the dominant

or sole crops grown on the farm, the weediness of fields was overcome,

land was manured, areas formerly deemed unfit were brought under

cultivation, and levels of soil fertility were raised. More than anyone

else concerned in the early developments of the beet as a sugar source,

Achard (1803) recognized the paramount importance of the agricultural phases and what the beet could contribute, stressing in his writings

the methods of culture, the need of a sound agronomy, and the gains to

the farmer. He stressed also the vital necessity of varieties of high

quality, and he greatly improved the beets he grew for his factory.

2. The White Silesian Beet

The forage beet, or Runkelrube, from which Achard selected the

first sugar beet, was a complex of beet types. Our best information, of

course, comes from Achard himself, who describes the main types

within the material grown for cattle feed by the farmers around Magdeburg, Germany. These beets had roots with red, yellow, or white flesh

and were of various shapes and sizes. They comprised much the range

of types we now find in the mangel-wurzels. Achard found that the

plants whose roots had white skins, white flesh, and conical shape were

richest in sugar and in “pure, sweet juice.” After a year or two, he

found the best were those plants whose crowns did not have the tendency to grow out of the ground. Achard selected these for culture and

for his seed stocks. I n time, this type, as grown and maintained by the

Barons von Koppy, father and son, whom Achard guided in developing

their small factory at Krayn in Silesia, Germany, became the White

Silesian beet called by the historian E. von Lippmann (1925) “ancestress of all the sugar beets of the world.”


G. H.



The White Silesian beet had a conformation not unlike our modern

sugar beet and probably was much the same in root yield. Its sucrose

content averaged about 7 per cent, possibly reaching 10 per cent, according to Schneider (1939). Undoubtedly it was a population of highand low-sucrose individuals.

I n the period from about 1810 to 1850, the small beet factories in

France and Germany processed this type of material; many probably

operated with lower grade mangel-wurzel types. Vilmorin (1923)

describes the Imperial beet bred about 1850 at Grobers near Halle,

Germany, by F. Knauer from the White Silesian beet. This variety

marked the first notable step i n sugar beet improvement, definite enhancement in quality over the White Silesian being shown. Vilmorin

(1923) quoted a statement from Louis de Vilmorin that in 1858 the

Imperial variety always gave a higher analysis than the others cultivated in France, 13.8 per cent sucrose against 7.5 per cent for French

varieties. Ware (1880), in his description of varieties of sugar beet

grown in France in 1878, stated that it contains about 13.5 per cent


3 . Vilmorin and the Sugar Beet

In the history of plant breeding the contributions of Louis de Vilmorin are outstanding. Scion of a family of seedsmen, he is famous as

the discoverer of the progeny system of breeding-the Vilmorin method

of the older textbooks. He pioneered in establishing reference collections

of breeding stocks, especially wheats. J. L. de Vilmorin (1923) reviews

the work of his grandfather, L. de Vilmorin, in the period 1837 to 1859,

when he introduced into sugar beet breeding more accurate methods

of selecting for quality, discarding the crude salt-bath flotation method

for finding roots of greatest density and substituting for it in 1852 the

silver ingot method. In this method, the quality of a beet root was

determined by finding the specific gravity of its juice. Fine morsels

were rasped from the beet and 7 to 8 ml. of juice pressed out. A

silver slug of known volume and weight was weighed when immersed

in the juice, giving accurate data for computing the specific gravity of

the juice. I n 1853, according to Saillard (1922), Vilmorin first used

the polariscope in sucrose determinations as an adjunct to the specific

gravity technique. By 1860, saccharimetry had become the standard

method in selecting sugar beets for breeding purposes.

Such painstaking selection of individual roots would have accomplished only slow improvement had it not been combined with the Vilmorin method of breeding, in which the breeding value of the mother



plant is judged not by its own characteristics but by the performance of

its progeny. Hayes and Garber ( 1921) give an appraisal of the significance to plant breeding of this contribution. Given the tools for precision in selection and an efficient method of breeding, improvement

of the sugar beet, beginning in 1860, was rapid and positive. The case

can be made that with the screening out of mangel-wurzel types, the

sugar beets as bred by Vilmorin at Verrikes, France, to replace the

White Silesian, and those bred at Kleinwanzleben and elsewhere in

Germany to replace the Imperial beet, approached the modern sugar

beet in both productiveness and quality.

Schribaux, cited by Vilmorin (1923), shows by a graph that from

I838 to 1868, when morphological selection prevailed, the average richness in sucrose of sugar beets progressed from 8.8 to 10.1 per cent; from

1868 to 1888, to 13.7 per cent; and from 1888 to 1912, to 18.5 per cent.

Schneider (1939), in his thorough review of the breeding of sugar beets

up to 1939, discusses estimates of improvement in quality over the

decades, showing clearly that those based chiefly on statistics of sugar

production probably disregard, to a great extent, the enormous improvements in processing techniques that took place as modern chemical

methods were developing. Schneider cites other evidences of improvement in sugar beet quality, based on analyses of breeding stocks, to show

a steady but moderate improvement. That sugar beet quality has been

improved decade by decade by breeding has been challenged by Coons

(1 936) on the basis of the data Wiley (1898) reported in the agronomic

tests with European brands of sugar beet. These results are not strikingly different from what would be obtained today in a similar series

of field trials conducted with varieties not resistant to the major endemic

diseases. Furthermore, the sucrose percentage values given by Ware

(1880) and McMurtrie (1880) as characteristic of the various commercial brands indicate a reasonably high quality.

From this brief review of the early work on sugar beet improvement,

it is seen that Achard selected from the forage beet complex the forms

that encompassed the potentialities of our modern sugar beet. The

breeding work of the nineteenth century screened the population to

obtain higher sucrose quality and no doubt high-yielding types. The

publications by Vilmorin and Schneider, already cited, cover this work.

The job has not gone forward by slow, graded steps decade by decade,

but always as sharp responses to discoveries that permitted greater precision in measurement of the attribute in question, whereby the selections were more efficient, and by improvements in the breeding techniques that could capitalize upon the better job of selection.


G. H. COONS, F. V.



4 . Sugur Beet Breeding Establishnienrs

As the sugar beet, beginning about 1830, took on ever-increasing

importance in European agriculture, there developed extensive sugar

beet breeding establishments to furnish the seed for the beet sugar

industry. Such commercial organizations were developed in Germany,

Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, and other countries. Breeding research

was almost exclusively left to them. Even after the rediscovery of

Mendel’s laws of heredity had given new impetus to genetics and plant

breeding, the sugar beet was not generally a subject of study in European universities and experiment stations. Notable exceptions were the

Swedish Breeding Station at Svalof; the Stazione Sperimentale di Bieticultura at Rovigo, Italy; the Sugar Beet Institute at Kiev, U.S.S.R.; and

a few others. The breeding programs of the various commercial seed

firms were based upon a progeny system of selecting. Each year, thousands of sugar beet roots were analyzed to serve as the starting point of

a progeny selection scheme from which after five to seven years the

commercial seed would be obtained. Each year the job was repeated,

starting with new roots and ending up with a commercial variety. In

the older books on plant breeding, the methods of the European sugar

beet breeding establishments were cited as models.

5. European Sugar Beet Breeding Methods

European seed companies, in their departments devoted to the sugar

beet, have done much painstaking work and have been responsible for

notable progress. Procedures have varied, but a considerable number of

breeders have sought to follow the method of Vilmorin. Their methods

have been described in detail by Coons (1936) , and the year-by-year

steps from the initial selection of roots to the production of commercial

seed diagramed.

The possibilities and the weaknesses of methods which appear to be

comparable to the ear-to-row scheme once in vogue in corn improvement may be briefly reviewed. In some of the European schemes, sugar

beet roots are selected on the basis of morphology and individual sugar

analyses as “heads of families.” By the techniques followed, the seed that

is produced from the carefully selected mothers is not selfed nor is it

the product of controlled matings, but rather the result of polyandry

among the mother plants of the seed plot. This comes about because no

effective means are used to prevent inter se crossing of seed bearers.

Furthermore, only plants setting heavy quantities of seed are usable in

a scheme that involves extensive progeny appraisal with a portion of

the seed, the other portion being planted the same year for production of



roots from which a seed increase can be made if such is desired. In view

of the limited set of seed that occurs when sugar beet plants are selfed,

the elimination of all plants except those setting the most seed means

that, chiefly, out-pollinated progenies are retained. The breeding system, therefore, although ostensibly line breeding, is, in fact, anything

but that; whence the name “mother-line breeding” applied to it by

Coons (1936).

The agronomic test of the progenies of “Heads of Families” indicates

certain progenies as superior to others and as corresponding to one or

another direction of breeding-that is, toward high root yield or toward

high sucrose percentage. On the basis of these appraisal tests, roots of

the progenies that were grown in the companion increase plots are retained for seed production or are rejected. Here again the isolation between mother-line progenies is inadequate; heavy seed yields are obtained from some, and these again are taken. Again the seed lots are

divided. A portion is used in agronomic appraisal of the line, the tests

often being conducted for several successive years, and the second portion is held in reserve. On the basis of the agronomic appraisal tests,

some seed lots are retained for use as the foundation stocks from which

the commercial seed is grown; others are rejected. Seed lots that appear

to give yield-type plants are put together, and those judged to give high

sucrose types are pooled. The seed stocks that on the basis of the appraisal tests would not give plants to be classed in either category form

the compromise or so-called normal types (Lathouwers, 1930).

No matter how desirable a commercial seed produced in this way

may be, no further use of it is made, the breeding starting afresh every

year with new heads of families. It was part of the belief of the old

breeders who devised the scheme that direct increase of the commercial seed, in some way not explained, would lead to immediate


Thus, the common observation that a sugar beet field, no matter

what the brand, presents a conglomeration of types, serves to show that

there is little approach to the intensification of certain characters that

might be expected in a pedigreed breeding scheme. It also seems clear

that the method cannot be expected to give progenies with special characters, such as resistance to disease, unless provision can be made for

rigid selection for the desired character. As was shown long ago by

Pritchard (1916b), the performance of the variety or brand obtained

in this manner may be expected to be the average of its many components and to show little change as, year after year, seed lots follow

in the steps of their predecessors. Brewbaker and McGreevy (1938)

have discussed critically family and group breeding methods.








1. Early Attempts to Establish Beet Sugar Industry

After the sugar beet had gained its important place in European

agriculture, there were many attempts to introduce it into the United

Slates. There was an abortive attempt in Philadelphia in 1830, but the

first factory was built at Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1838. It ran

another year, made 1300 pounds of sugar, then was closed down. Attempts to establish factories in Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and other

states all were unsuccessful. The almost incredible effort put forth by

the Mormons to establish in 1852 a beet sugar factory near Salt Lake

,City, Utah, with machinery brought from Liverpool, England, and

transported from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, over the plains by ox

trains, is memorialized by Taylor (1944) in his A Saga of Sugar. The

factory was built and the sugar beets were grown and processed. But

lack of chemical know-how gave only sirup as the product. Nevertheless, this brave venture was forerunner o f the important industry that

about 50 years later was to develop in Utah.

2. Beet Sugar Industry Becomes Established

The beet sugar industry in the United States may be said to date

from 1870 with the factory at Alvarado, California-a factory that was

remodeled in 1879 and essentially rebuilt in 1936, but is still in operation on the original site.

From this period to the present time, numerous factories were

started. Many of them operated only a brief period before they were

abandoned or moved to another location. A few of these were frank

promotional ventures, but mostly they were serious attempts to establish

the sugar beet as a part of our agriculture. By 1950, a total of 168 factories had been built; 85 had been removed and 83 were standing, but

only 72 were operating. In 1954 there were, in all, 73 factories in 16

states, with a daily slicing capacity of 143,650 tons per day. The history

o€ factories built and factories now operating is illustrative of the difFculties the industry has faced as it won its way in America. Now sugar

beets are grown in 21 or 22 states on upwards of 850,000 acres annually,

the production of refined sugar being approximately 1.7 million tons.

I n Canada there are a total of 7 factories, located in Alberta, Manitoba,

Ontario, and Quebec. About 100,000 acres of sugar beets are grown annually.

From the start and all through the trial-and-error period when factories were leading almost a gypsy existence, trying to find an area



where they could operate successfully, the sugar beet was grown from

seed obtained from European breeding establishments. I n spite of early

recommendations of the Department of Agriculture and a clear showing, by experiments over a score of years from 1890 on, of the advantage

of home-grown varieties and home-grown seed, the industry, dominated

by European technologists brought over to run the sugar-making equipment, insisted on imported brands. There is no question that the European seed was capable of giving good crops under conditions comparable

to those of Europe, but far too often it was not adapted to conditions

encountered in one area or another in the United States. As we shall

see, the long-continued use of imported seed was at the bottom of much

of the trouble of American factories.

Four major areas are engaged in growing sugar beets, and each of

these has its own special conditions of soil and climate. In the humid

area, sugar beets are grown in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois,

eastern North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and eastern Nebraska. The

soils used are clays or heavy loams; the crop depends on natural rainfall

which is frequently heavy in the spring months and adequate in most

years in the growing season for good crop production. In the Midwest,

particularly in Colorado, western Nebraska, Kansas, western North

Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and eastern Montana, sugar beets are

grown on heavy soils that are alkaline in reaction; rainfall in spring is

fairly frequent but scanty; and there are occasional summer rains.

This rainfall needs to be supplemented by irrigation and frequently the

crops are irrigated up, since the spring rains do not wet the soils deeply

enough. In the intermountain area-Utah, Idaho, Montana, eastern

Oregon, and Washington-agriculture is confined to sedimentary, valley soils that can be reached by irrigation water, since rainfall is inadequate to produce the crop. On the Pacific coast, in California, the sugar

beet crop is grown on a wide range of soils and under irrigation, the

water coming either from streams or wells. The climate allows the crop

to be grown either as a summer or a winter crop.

3 . The Sugar Beet Threatened by Disease and Insect Attack

Sugar beet culture is limited to acreages within economical transportation distance of a beet sugar factory equipped to carry on the highly

technical process of sugar manufacture. This and other factors have

tended towards intensification of sugar beet culture; accordingly, problems associated with intensified agriculture, especially serious diseases,

have been encountered. In each of the major districts, plant diseases

have been responsible for serious crop failures and, as the industry was

becoming established, were the chief causes of the lack of success of one

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II. The Development of the Sugar Beet in Europe

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