Back in the day, growing sugar beets was a whole lot of back-breaking work.
The germination rate of sugar beet seed was not high, so the seed spacing in the rows was set to ensure that enough plants would sprout to create a good stand. That meant that in some places, the seedlings would come up too close together.
There was an additional challenge created by the way sugar beet plants produced seed.
Before the 1950s, most commercially-available sugar beet varieties produced clusters of flowers that would develop into a hard ball containing multiple seeds. When these seed balls (now referred to as non-segmented seed) were planted, several sugar beet plants would germinate in the same spot.
If allowed to grow so close together, the individual sugar beet plants sprouting from each seed ball in thickly-planted rows would compete with each other for space and nutrients, which would prevent many beets from reaching maturity and would reduce yield.
To get the ideal stand density (about 5 inches apart), the field would have to be laboriously blocked and thinned by hand when the plants were about 2 to 3 inches tall. One person would use a long-handled hoe to cut the continuous row of seedlings into “blocks,” and a second person, usually on hands and knees, would use a short-handled hoe to thin the cluster of seedlings down to a single plant.
The development of mechanical thinners and segmented sugar beet seed, in which only a single plant sprouted from a seed ball, drastically reduced the amount of labor needed to block and thin sugar beets.
The young sugar beet plants in the image at the top of this post will be the subject of blocking and thinning activities this Saturday, June 14. Volunteers will be demonstrating these historic techniques from about 10 a.m. to noon at Legacy of the Plains Museum.
You will be able to see these sugar beet plants harvested with vintage equipment at the 2014 Legacy of the Plains Museum Harvest Festival on September 20-21.
Copyright 2014 by Legacy of the Plains