This Sweet Root Vegetable Makes a Big Stink in Billings Each Year
"What is that awful smell in Billings?"
Visitors this time of year often ask about the funky odor that seems to permeate certain areas of town. New residents may wonder too. "I keep getting a whiff of something gross every time I'm around downtown", they might say. I remember my first time smelling the sugar beet factory too, and wondering the exact same thing.
Harvest season is underway.
Sugar beets are a popular crop along the Yellowstone River valley, providing a perfect climate, sandy soil, and plenty of irrigation water for these thirsty root vegetables. Sugar beets are roughly the size of a lumpy NERF football at harvest time. Trucks from the fields roll into the Western Sugar Processing plant every few minutes between September and November, dumping massive piles of raw, freshly harvested beets.
The piles are huge.
While the beets are waiting to be processed into sugar, the piles outside the factory on State Avenue can get up to 20 feet tall and over 180 feet long. That's a mountain of beets, that will soon be made into trainloads of sugar. It takes about six pounds of beets to make one pound of sugar, and since the mid-2000s, more than half of the sugar consumed in the US comes from beets according to USDA reports.
Wanna take a bite? Read this first.
Before you start munching on a freshly sliced raw sugar beet, keep this in mind: they can have a laxative effect if you eat very much. We headed that advice when we sampled a raw sugar beet. We found our beet lying on the side of the road; clearly, it had bounced out of a beet truck. Mature sugar beets weigh around 2 to 5 pounds, so keep your distance following those fully loaded beet trucks as they rumble into town.
They're not very good to eat.
Raw sugar beets reminded me of a less flavorful jicama root. Or a really crunchy, vaguely sweet raw Russett potato. Since they're only around 18% sucrose, you can barely taste the sweetness.
Montana band El Wencho even wrote a song about sugar beets.
Wester Sugar products are sold and consumed across the US. The Upper and Central Great Plains region (including MT, ND, WY, CO, and NE) accounts for about 1/8 of all sugar beets grown in the US. Little is wasted from the sugar-making process; beet pulp, a leftover byproduct is used to make livestock feed. The company created a slide that illustrates the sugar beet process HERE.
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Gallery Credit: Michael Foth