Welcome to Sugar Avenue: Billings refinery turns out millions of pounds of sugar each year
By Jennifer Mckee
Fall and winter in Billings is a time of odor. Newcomers and visitors often don’t understand these smells. They will even make fun of them.
But for the 110,000 people of Billings – fully one-tenth the population of Montana – the odor triggers the brain’s emotional messaging system each fall to begin pumping out messages.
Intellectually inaccessible, maybe even unreasonable, complex messaging about smell.
These are some of the messages they hear:
“The harvest is over.”
“The work has begun.”
“Food comes from work.”
“Food comes from Billings.”
“I am home.”
Billings’ signature smell that stirs these thoughts also conjures a kind of pride.
It is the smell of sugar beets.
The Western Sugar Cooperative beet refinery on Billings’ south edge produces 1.5 million pounds of sugar every day it is running.
Chances are, you’ve probably had some. It goes in Wheat Montana bread and Wilcoxson’s ice cream.
If you’ve bought sugar in Montana from IGA, WalMart, Albertsons or anywhere that stocks Western Family or Great Western sugar, you’ve had some.
Whole train cars of it go to Hershey, Penn., and you know exactly what that means.
From seed to sugar: How beets are turned 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.
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