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The history of Manitoba-made sugar and how the sugar beet industry could be revived in the province

As the Rogers Sugar strike drags on with no end in sight, some bakers are looking for sugar on shelves, while others are looking to Manitoba’s manufacturing history for answers.

Brian Fehr, the general manager of Bracor Environmental, said his company would love to see Manitoba farmers grow sugar beets again, have them refined in the province and help stock shelves.

“From a farming aspect, it gives a little bit more diversification for some farmers. So it gives you an extra crop to plant if you need to. And then having the refinery here supplying sugar in Canada,” said Fehr.

And it wouldn’t be the first time sugar was a going concern in Manitoba.

The Manitoba Sugar Company plant opened in the Fort Garry area in 1940 and closed down in 1997.

The factory brought in locally grown sugar beets and refined them into white sugar.

Gordon Goldsborough, the head researcher with the Manitoba Historical Society, has a lot of memories from the factory – from the smell of molasses that would waft through the Winnipeg air to his uncle working at the plant in the winters after harvesting the summer crops.

“I always associate him with that sugar plant,” said Goldsborough. His wife even remembers stopping along Pembina Highway to pick up sugar beets on the side of the road that would fall out of trucks so she could take them home and feed them to her pet rabbits.

Prior to 1940, Goldsborough said sugar was a commodity that was imported into Canada from more tropical locations where sugar cane was grown.

However, concern started to grow once there were threats from Germany of another world war.

“The concern was that we were potentially going to have interruptions of international shipping,” he said. “So in 1939, a bunch of businessmen got together and they formed the Manitoba Sugar Company.”

Farmers in Manitoba started to grow sugar beets and by the fall of 1940, Goldsborough said Manitoba-made sugar was hitting store shelves.

He noted the crop was very labour-intensive compared to other plants like wheat and barley, which meant farmers needed a lot of people in the fields tending to the beets.

“During the Second World War, some of the German prisoners of war (POW)…were sent to Canada. There were POW camps in various places and one of the very, very common things that these POWs would do would be to hoe sugar beets. Put them to work, basically growing sugar.”

Rogers Sugar would eventually take over the sugar factory in Winnipeg in 1957 and Goldsborough said the sugar beet industry thrived in the province in the 1970s and 80s.

“At its height in Manitoba, 28,000 acres of sugar beets were being grown.”

An aerial shot of the of the old Manitoba Sugar Company building in Winnipeg. (Gordon Goldsborough, 2016)

‘IN ONE SHOT KILLED THE INDUSTRY’

However, the sugar industry went from boom to bust in the flip of a switch, according to Goldsborough.

He said an agreement was made with the United States which stopped the shipment of sugar across the border.

“It was a provision of the GATT – Generalized Agreement on Tariffs and Trade – and it was negotiated in 1995. Under the terms of that GATT agreement, it restricted the import of sugar and sugar containing products into the U.S. from Canada.

“It basically in one shot killed the industry in Canada, because the United States was Canada’s single biggest market for its sugar.”

The sugar factory in Winnipeg closed in 1997 and Goldsborough said farmers immediately stopped growing sugar beets, as they were no longer needed in the province.

‘IF WE HAD SOMETHING LOCAL, THAT WOULD BE TREMENDOUS’

One company that wouldn’t mind seeing the lights turned back on and the refinery equipment humming again is Bracor Environmental.

The company creates a de-icing product from sugar beets. The beet juice solution – which is called BEET 55 – can be sprayed on roads before snowfall, preventing the snow from sticking to the roads and forming ice – making it easier to clear.

It also helps accelerate the melting process when combined with salt.

Bracor’s Fehr said the sugar beets they use are brought in from North Dakota and having a local sugar industry would be much more cost-effective for the company and may ease the shortages due to strikes like Rogers.

“Freight costs, definitely number one and the exchange (rate) right now as you know, exchange rates are pretty high. So we’re paying a lot of extra for exchange and for freight. So if we had something local, that would be tremendous.”

The cities of Calgary and Toronto both use beet juice for their roads and Winnipeg has been using the solution to spray the salt and sand spinners, which helps the particles stick to the road better.

Fehr feels BEET 55 is the way cities should be tackling the winter moving forward and would ultimately save them money on snow clearing and sanding/salting efforts

“Having the refinery here supplying sugar in Canada and then having the raffine as the byproduct used for other alternatives, including BEET 55.”

Goldsborough believes if this were to ever happen, farmers in the province would need some assurances that the industry wouldn’t again be abandoned in the blink of an eye.

“I have a feeling that local growers would be somewhat hesitant because of the fact that they were left high and dry in the 90s,” said Goldsborough. 

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