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Smooth Roots Mean Smoother Processing for U.S. Sugar Beets

By Don Comis
September 23, 2003

The Agricultural Research Service has released two new breeding lines of smooth-root sugar beets for industry to use to develop commercial varieties. The new lines are called SR-96 and SR-97. They are the culmination of a series of seven "SR" (smooth-root) lines developed at the ARS Sugar Beet and Bean Research Unit at East Lansing, Mich.

The latest lines were developed by ARS geneticist J. Mitchell McGrath and the late Joseph W. Saunders, along with ARS plant physiologist John M. Halloin and geneticist J. Clair Theurer, both now retired.

The new breeding lines have the highest sugar content of the smooth-root lines, 17 percent, close to the 17.5 to 18 percent found in commercial varieties. The American Crystal Sugar Company of Moorhead, Minn., a farmer-owned cooperative, gave the ARS researchers a high-sucrose line of sugar beets to help bring the sucrose level of smooth-root sugar beets closer to commercial levels.

Smooth roots are important to the sugar industry because sugar beet roots that are rough and lined with deep grooves tend to have more soil sticking to them when they are pulled from the ground, especially from mud. Rough roots also tend to hold more soil on them longer through factory processes, presenting a costly disposal problem. Smooth-root sugar beets have a surface more like that of red beets, with few, if any, grooves.

The new lines promise to cut in half the amount of soil that makes it into the processing line, saving the industry several million dollars a year in cleaning and disposal costs--especially in jurisdictions where disposal of the washed-off soil is regulated.

In the past few years, most sugar beet factories have become farmer-owned cooperatives, so these savings will greatly help farmers. Sugar beets are grown on 1.2 million acres of U.S. cropland and bring farmers $945 million in annual sales.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.