Savoring sweet success: A giant turnaround for Michigan's sugar beet industry

Thanks to MSU, a sweet partnership has helped resurrect Michigan's $444 million sugar beet industry.

May 30, 2011

The sugar beet industry in MichiganThanks to Michigan State University (MSU), a sweet partnership has helped resurrect Michigan’s $444 million sugar beet industry.

In 1996, the industry was in peril. Yields had hit an all-time low because of pest, disease and production issues that greatly reduced crop health. Farmers were looking to get out of sugar beet farming and switch to more profitable crops. Industry representatives reached out to MSU for help.

Working with the Michigan Sugar Co., MSU spearheaded the creation of the Michigan Sugar Beet Advancement program, an interdisciplinary team of scientists, industry representatives and farmers. Together, they have resurrected the state’s sugar beet industry, boosting production more than 80 percent in 15 years, establishing Michigan as the nation’s fourth-leading sugar beet producer and giving the state an indirect economic boost of $1 billion.

"Fifteen years ago, the sugar beet industry in Michigan was struggling to survive," said Steve Poindexter, an MSU Extension educator who works with the Saginaw Valley Research and Extension Center, one of 14 AgBioResearch centers across the state. "Industry representatives came to MSU seeking a way to fund a position to do research and educational outreach to help improve the sugar beet crop. Researchers started working more closely with growers and sugar processors on exactly what was needed to help solve the problems and coming up with applied research that worked. This is a great success story that was definitely a team approach.”

When the research started, 30 issues or problems needed to be addressed. These primarily centered on poor emergence of the plants, various diseases and nematodes as well as the sugar quality of the beet. A grant from MSU’s Project GREEEN (Generating Research and Extension to Meet Economic and Environmental Needs) was used to begin addressing these issues.

“Through our research, we’ve been able to improve sugar content from 16 percent to 18 percent, which increases farmers’ profits without them having to farm any additional acreage,” said Paul Pfenninger, Michigan Sugar Co.’s vice president of agriculture. “Our goal is to continually improve this percentage and eventually reach 19 percent in the near future.”

These advancements have allowed Michigan growers to produce 4 million tons of sugar beets, which translate to 1 billion pounds of white sugar. There are now 1,100 farm families raising sugar beets and 2,300 full- and part-time people working at Michigan Sugar Co.

"We’ve improved sugar content and nutrient management, which has vastly increased yields and enhanced crop quality," Poindexter said. “Essentially, we’ve made sugar beets the crop of choice in this region.”

The Saginaw Valley Research and Extension Center is located near Frankenmuth, Mich.  For more information about Michigan sugar beet research, visit  To watch a short video on the topic, visit

Photo: The sugar beet industry in Michigan

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