By Andrew Campbell
As an industry, agriculture can offer some pretty ‘sweet’ opportunities for anyone looking for a career. But to work in the sugar sector takes it to a whole new level. For Leon Leclair, growing sugar is part of his farm, and has been for a long time. Sugar isn’t one of Canada’s most common crops, but there are pockets of it, particularly in Alberta and Ontario. As consumers, we all come across sugar at some point in a day… maybe it is sugar in our coffee or something a little sweet in a recipe. That sugar is generally going to come from either sugar cane, which is grown in tropical environments, or sugar beets grown in Canada. Today we are going to find out more about sugar beet farming from Leon! So, add a tablespoon of sugar to your tea and pull up a chair as we find out just where sugar grows in Canada.
We’re here with Leon Leclair at LC Leclair farms in Kent County, Ontario. Oh, this is wonderful. We are standing out in a sugar beet field, but that’s not all you farm. What kind of farmer are you?
I’m diversified with sugar beets, seed corn, tomatoes, regular corn, soybeans and wheat. I do a lot of custom work as well.
Custom work is helping other farmers seed and harvest?
Yes. For example, these are my sugar beets in this field. I have a partner with this harvester. We do their combining and custom planting. We harvest up to 1500 acres of beets, our beets and custom work. It’s just a part of the puzzle for my farm operation. I have two good guys working for me full time. Gotta keep them busy, because I don’t want to lose them!
Well, that’s good. They probably want to be busy too. I know I hate being bored. What I want to talk about today is sugar…
That’s what a sugar beet looks like. It looks like a big tuber, like a rutabaga. What’s the sugar beet used for?
Sugar for your coffee, your cake… we’re just going to get sugar out of it. Out of a beet this size we will get a couple of teaspoons. 15 to 20% of this beet is sugar.
Let’s backup a bit then because you’ve got a whole pile of beets that are being loaded and shipped. Where do you send your sugar beets?
Michigan. There’s 150,000 acres of beets grown in Michigan and 8 to 9,000 in Ontario, and they’re the ones that manufacture over there. They also grow sugar beets in Alberta and those are processed at Roger’s Sugar Factory in Taber, Alberta.
Oh, if you’re going to the grocery store in the States then, if you see Pioneer Sugar on the shelf, it probably came from a sugar beet farm like yours?
Yes. And my competition is cane sugar from Brazil and the southern United States.
How do you harvest sugar beets?
We have new technology. We have a self propelled sugar beet harvester, and you’ll see it on your drone picture. It’s a European technology and it’ll come in here and we’ll knock off the beet tops and lifters, like plow shears, pop the beet out of the soil. They are gently rolled around to get rid of a lot of that dirt and put on a pile to wait for a truck.
The harvesting machine does all of that?
Yes. When my grandpa used to have beets, every beet was hand touched with a special knife that cut off the top.
These are tough plants! It would take a lot of time if every beet was hand touched. Isn’t that amazing! So you’ve come a long way then because this is a big field. What are some of the other new technologies that you use?
The chemicals we use. Now with Roundup ready technology we’re in here only twice a year, spraying to control weeds. Before the Roundup technology, we had to spray maybe seven or eight times. So, in terms of the residuals and the chemicals that are used on the farm, we’re hardly using anything anymore. The impact on the environment, I think it’s so much less. And we have a better product now. We always used to get herbicide injury, because we used to be in the field spaying 7 or 8 times during the year. The crop has to break that down.
So obviously, you’re going through the field less, but let’s back up even more now. How do you get them to start growing? Do you plant a seed or propagate or how does it work?
We’ll seed using color coated seeds because they’re very small and hard to see. Beet seeds are seeded an inch, inch and a half down and that is our target depth. The technology we have on our planters has a downforce that puts all those seeds in there now at an inch and a half deep, and four to four and a half inches apart.
Back in the day, my dad and my grandparents would come back and block them. So that they’re equal distance apart. We have a planter now for that and it does it all. There are 48,500 seeds per acre.
Really? You can get that precise on something that little?
Technology is just amazing! And just another part of the diversification. Everybody can grow beans, corn and wheat in the world. Let’s do something different here in Chatham-Kent. That’s our motto, Chatham-Kent: we grow for the world. We have 75 different crops that grow here right in this County.
Isn’t that amazing? How do you do it?, Is it the soil that’s different? Is it the farmers?
Climate and farmers.
Farmers are willing to try it!
To get ahead, you have to be innovative. So you have to be a little bit different and most of us are a bit different.
Well, thanks for having me to Chatham-Kent.
Watch Fresh Air Farmer Andrew Campbells full video here: