Part of our motivation for the sugarbeet project was to showcase the actual process of raising a dry-farmed crop. As of New Year’s Eve, we have yet to plant the crop… and that’s a great example of what we’re trying to do.
Originally we expected to plant just before Thanksgiving. Traditionally that is a good time to plant covercrop. We prepped the soil to plant, but didn’t go for it when the rain system we’d been counting on failed to live up to expectations.
Not planting was the right call. We’ve only had about a third of an inch of rain on top of very dry soil. We’ve had dry, windy days and freezing cold nights. Had we planted on schedule, we probably would have lost the whole crop. As it is, the seed is safe in the barn while we look for the right opportunity to plant. We’re about 45 days behind schedule, but it looks like we’ll get our chance early next week.
Wish us luck!
Sugar was once a prized rarity. Our species, like others, seems to be hardwired to seek its easy calories. It’s hard to come by in Nature, and almost impossible to overindulge in if you’re a hunter-gatherer.
Later we learned techniques to extract sugar from the world around us. This technology not only gave us the sweetness we craved, but as a commodity, sugar was an efficient instrument of trade and a useful preservative. See how long the abundant fruits of summer fare with out sugar to turn them into shelf stable jams and jellies. (These pair perfectly with summer grains turned into shelf stable flour and subsequently bread, but that’s a different article.)
Eventually our sugar technologies became so advanced that sugar became ubiquitous. The easy calories became a disease. Describing a food as “full of sugar” is understood to mean that it is cheap and bad for you.
That’s where we are today. As part of our sugarbeet project this winter and next spring, we will be providing sugarbeets to some friends and food adventurers who will turn back the clocks (at least for demonstration purposes) to a time when sugar was still our friend. (And a real friend at that! Not an “it’s complicated” friend. A friend worth the effort that we would put into the relationship.)
Sugar is a part of our human history, but it is also a part of our local history. We’ll be sharing more about the project as it progresses, but I’m very grateful for the interest from Editor Sarene Wallace of Edible Ojai and Ventura County. When the story is written, it will be written there.
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.