We’ll be trying something new in our covercrop this winter. Or perhaps I should say something old.
Sugar beets were once a staple of our local economy. The city of Oxnard is named for the brothers who opened the first sugar beet processing plant in the area in 1897 and operated until 1959. But without local processing, sugar beets ceased to be a viable crop, and they disappeared quickly. Much of their former domain now yields strawberries.
We’ll be growing about an acre’s worth of sugar beets in our fig orchard this winter. Without a plant to process them, we have no expectation that they will be a profitable cash crop. So why are we doing it?
As part of the brassica family, they should make a nice rotational covercrop with our typical barley and rye. It’s good for the soil to mix things up. I could have opted for more familiar table beets or swiss chard… all are the same species of plant. But I have plenty of friends growing those already and the chefs I work with have all they need..
I’ve already mentioned the historical connection. Sugar beets played a big role in our community but are nearly forgotten. Not many locals know the difference between a sugar beet and a regular beet. Growing a few seemed like a great educational opportunity. I’ll be introducing a little living piece of local farm history to our neighbors of all ages.
Lastly, sugar beets provide a link to the realities of where our food comes from. A sugar beet is one of the ugliest pieces of produce out there. But it is transformed into something vastly different in appearance and flavor. That transformation takes work. It is possible to do it in a home kitchen, and I have a few friendly volunteers who will attempt to make a little local sugar and illustrate the process and uses for the public. I’ll share those developments here.
As for myself, I plan on using the sugar syrup form the first stage of processing to make some Meyer lemon marmalade. I like to encourage home canners, but it always bothers me a bit that this classic “homemade” food is so dependent on sugar from far, far away. Beet pulp from processing makes decent livestock fodder, the greens are edible for humans and livestock alike, and everything is compostable for a return to the fig orchard… helping to feed another ancient crop.