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California Farmers Turn Sugar Beets Into Energy


Struggling sugar beet farmers in the San Joaquin Valley are turning their crop into energy instead of sweetener. A cooperative of nine sugar beet farmers just opened a demonstration biorefinery south of Fresno.

They're called "energy beets." They look like a red table beet, but they're larger, white and very high in sucrose. Sugar beets in California date back to the late 1800's. In fact they've been grown longer in the state than anywhere in the world. But, due to low sugar prices, sugar beets are no longer a viable crop. At one time there was twelve processing plants in California and today there is only one. 

However, "energy beets" could keep farmers in business.

According to Steve Kaffka, the director of the California Biomass Collaborative, sugar is an excellent energy source that requires very little sophisticated technology to convert it into ethanol. 

Jim Tischer is the project manager of Mendota Bioenergy LLC. He says turning sugar beets into ethanol has a low carbon footprint. Plus, he says processing energy beets will bring high paying jobs to a struggling rural economy.

"The small town of Mendota that we're looking at has as high as 40 to 45 percent unemployment in the winter," says Tischer.

The pilot project is located at Red Rock Ranch, owned by Fresno County farmer John Diener. 

If the testing facility is successful, a commercial-scale biorefinery will be built in the next two to three years. The final plant 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.  

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

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