Sugar beet was first grown in Britain in the early 1900s and the first factory opened at Cantley near Norwich in 1912. Gangs of men and women harvested it by hand. It wasn’t until the 1950s that machines replaced them. Now, modern mechanical giants harvest up to twelve rows at a time chopping off the tops, lifting and loading it. Approximately 60% of the sugar we consume comes from home grown sugar beet; most of the remainder is imported cane sugar.
Other than cursing all the mud left on the road by tractors carting the beet, do you ever wonder what happens after its left the farm? It all goes to the factory at Wissington, identified from afar by large plumes of steam emerging from its chimneys. Wissey is the largest and most modern in Europe and is one of only four remaining in the UK, the others being at Newark, Cantley and Bury St Edmunds. It’s efficiently powered by a system producing both steam and electricity and operates from late September until early March, working 24-7 during this period which is known as ‘The Campaign’. On arrival samples are tested to determine the sugar level, normally averaging about 17%. It is then washed before processing begins. Once inside the factory it’s sliced into thin strips known as ‘cossettes’ before being diffused, a procedure similar to brewing tea in a teapot. The water is kept at 70C for a period of time to extract the sugar. This juice is then purified by mixing with milk of lime and carbon dioxide gas before being filtered off and going through an evaporation process to concentrate it. The actual crystallisation procedure is carried out in giant vacuum pans. After having been further reduced minute sugar crystals called ‘seeds’ are introduced. These ‘seeds’ form the nucleus for larger crystals to form. The resulting mix of crystals and syrup is separated by being spun in a ‘centrifuge’; to extract as much sugar as possible the syrup is spun twice more. The crystals are then washed and dried ready for storage.
This method of processing results in several by-products, none of which are wasted. Soil washed off the beet is screened and sold as topsoil, extracted stones as an aggregate and the lime as a soil improver. Residual beet pulp and molasses go for animal feed. The factory also produces bio-ethanol fuel. For several years tomatoes were grown in the 44 acres (18h) of glasshouses adjacent to the factory but in 2017 the decision was made to grow medicinal cannabis instead used to produce a drug for treating epilepsy. Excess electricity and waste carbon dioxide from the factory are used for this purpose along with rainwater collected from the roofs for irrigation. Any surplus electricity generated is fed into the National Grid.
Yet another by-product is utilised by the 100,000 pink-footed geese wintering in north Norfolk. They feed on the green tops and beet chips left lying in the fields after harvesting.
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