• Photo by Larry Mayer

    Sugar season in Montana

    There are a lot of beets to turn into sugar this year.

    A lot. That means the sugar beet factory in Billings will run throughout February, instead of just through the first portion of the month as usual, according to Billings Gazette reporter Tom Lutey.

    A bumper 2014 sugar beet crop and favorable conditions mean Western’s Billings factory will make sugar most of February, officials said Tuesday.

    “We expect the campaign to wrap up sometime in the third week of February,” said Randall Jobman, Western’s agricultural manager for Billings and Lovell.

    But how do they turn beets into sugar? 

    487586769It’s a  cool process that takes place each year on Sugar Avenue in Billings. On average, the plant turns out 1.5 million pounds of sugar each year. The sugar is used in everything from Wilcoxin’s Ice Cream to Wheat Montana bread. 

    Here’s our breakdown of the process, from seed to sugar.

    Like you’re reading? Get more Montana delivered to your door by subscribing today.


  • Take a jaunt down Billings’ Sugar Ave.

    There’s a street in Billings called Sugar Avenue, and it ‘s a very appropriately named street. That’s because every winter, more than 1.5 million pounds of sugar is produced at the Western Sugar Cooperative plant.

    Contributor Jennifer McKee took us into the refinery in our July/August issue, taking readers through the process of making sugar from Montana-grown sugar beets. It’s quite a process.

    The sugar ends up in products across the world, helping to sweeten things you’ve almost definitely eaten (like Wilcoxson’s ice cream or Wheat Montana bread).

    But how do you make sugar from a beet? Here’s a quick breakdown of the process:

    Inside the Western Sugar Cooperative. Photo by Larry Mayer

    Inside the Western Sugar Cooperative. Photo by Larry Mayer

    From seed to sugar

    Seed: From mid-April to May, planting season begins for beet farmers on 150 Montana farms from Bridger to Custer

    Root: From May through September the seeds begin to grow on the 24,000 acres of Montana farmland into what will become white, two-to five- pound, foot-long sugar beets. Beets contain up to 22 percent sucrose

    Sugar beet: In September, harvesting season begins and roughly 1.5 billion of pounds of sugar beets are shipped to “beet dumps” around the state. Beets are then delivered by truck to the Billings refinery

    Refining: From September through mid-February, once at the Western Sugar Cooperative refinery, beets are taken through a three hour process to make sugar. The refinery runs nonstop producing sugar

    Sugar water: Inside the refinery every day beets are washed in river water, sliced with precision, dropped into a diffuser where steam coaxes out sugar. The resulting sugar water is then pumped into pans that induce crystallization

    Crystals: As sugar crystals form, they’re sent through a centrifuge that blasts the last of the water from the sugar

    Sugar: The sugar is spun dry and packaged. Every day of operation, the Billings refinery produces 1.5 million pounds of sugar. Sugar is shipped from the refinery to facilities across the world, including to Hershey, Penn.

    – Jenna