Profitt Report: Secrets to Success, Michigan Sugar

The view from inside the sugar beet harvester at Helmreich Farms. Photo credit: Jennifer Profitt

From the farm field to your dinner table, one Michigan company has been sweetening our foods for more than 100 years. Michigan Sugar started in 1906 and today, they’re the second biggest employer in Bay County.

“I wouldn't give it up for nothing, as you can see, I’m still not giving it up,” said Ron Helmreich, fifth generation farmer at Helmreich Farms, Inc. near the MBS Airport.

“We’re able to make a living and be our own boss and still just be independent to a point, it's not easy,” he said.

This year was especially rough. Helmreich said the flooding over the summer wreaked havoc on the sugar beet crop.

“It means a reduction in our income, the sugar beets will probably be only two-thirds of the tonnage we were anticipating,” Helmreich said.

But still, Helmreich and the other farm families in the Michigan Sugar Company cooperative harvest on.

Ray VanDriessche was a farmer most of his life and now works for Michigan Sugar. He takes us back to the sugar beet’s introduction to our region.

“Around 1898 or so when the forestry industry in the area was pretty well depleted and there was a lot of German heritage in the area and there were a lot of sugar beets grown in Europe, so the Germans were really familiar with sugar beets,” VanDriessche said.

The Great Lakes Bay area looked perfect for growing them so they tried it out. It turns out, they were right and the sugar beet industry took off. Factories popped up all over the state to take in and process sugar beets.

“Most of it was hand labor, the beets would be hand-dug or horses would pull a lifter,” VanDriessche said.

Today, a harvester can dig up as many as 12 rows at a time.

After the sugar beets leave the farm, they arrive at the Michigan Sugar factory where they are piled outside until it’s time for processing.

“We’re going to wash them, get all the dirt off of them, bring them in and cut them up into a cossette that looks like a small French fry,” VanDriessche said.

The cossettes go through a process that extracts the sugar from the beet.

“We put it in a vacuum pan and build our crystals,” he said, “we wash off the excess molasses that's the white granulated sugar you have on your table.”

It takes up to seven sugar beets to make one pound of sugar.

“We have 1,000 farm families and under a cooperative, we're raising about 160,000 acres of sugar beets,” VanDriessche said. That’s about 1.2 billion pounds of sugar.

With 2,350 part and full-time employees working under the cooperative, Michigan Sugar is a sweet addition to mid-Michigan’s economic landscape.

Even though farmers have a tough job, Helmreich knows how to ride with the ebbs and flows of the seasons. We asked him the secret to his success.

“Do your research, do your planning and it takes more than eight hours a day to be an independent business person or small business, you need to really hang with it,” he said.

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