California Farmers Turn Sugar Beets Into Energy

Jan 22, 2015

Mendota Bioenergy aims to turn sugar beets into biofuel.
Credit Mendota Bioenergy

Struggling sugar beet farmers in the San Joaquin Valley are turning their crop into energy instead of sweetner. A pilot plant could prove to be good for the environment and the economy. 

They're called "energy beets." They look like a red table beet but, but they're larger, white, and very high in sucrose. Sugar beets in California date back to the late 1800's.

Kaffka: "Beets have been grown here commercially longer than any other place."

Steve Kaffka is the director of the California Biomass Collaborative. He says yields in the state are the best in the world. But, the price of sugar has dropped so far that sugar beets are no longer a viable crop. But, Kaffka says "energy beets" could keep farmers in business. 

Kaffka: "You can make anything from sugar and you need very little sophisticated technology to do it. So, basically you're starting with a very high quality feed stock, input material."

A cooperative of sugar beet farmers just opened a demonstration biorefinery south of Fresno. Jim Tischer is the project manager. He says Mendota Bioenergy LLC will bring jobs to a struggling rural area.

Tischer: "The small town that we're looking at has as high as 40-45% unemployment in the winter."

If the testing plant is successful a commercial-scale biorefinery will be built in the next two to three years. The facility is expected to produce about 15 million gallons of ethanol annually.

But, Steve Kaffka says beet growers will face the same problem as other farmers in California.   

Kaffka: "The large question that overhangs agriculture in general in the state is water policy."  

In other words, should water during a drought be used to grow a crop that can't be eaten.