MISSING THE BEAT
I had never seen a sugar beet until I married and moved to Wexford, but from then on the root crop that was once called ‘white gold’ put its own work rhythm into winter.
It’s the sights and sounds that I remember most. The green tractor-pulled harvester speeding up the drills of the back-lane field, belts grasping the beet from the loosened soil, sending leafy tops in a constant stream to the left, while at the same time the beheaded beet dance-trooped their way to the top of the elevator, the first few to fall off making a clunking sound as they hit the bottom of the collecting tank.
There were more revs and clatters as the harvester stopped periodically to tip its tankful into the trailer waiting on the headland. Then it was off to the yards where it was tipped once gain, the beige-brown pile on the cement now growing bigger by the hour.
Days later, the beet would again bounce, this time up the elevating chains of the cleaner loader to knock off the excess soil, the tractor and its driver working late into the evening, driving back and forth, forth and back to put up the load for an early start to the beet depot in Wellingtonbridge.
For farmers all over Ireland, not just in Wexford, where one quarter of the national crop was grown, the beet dockets arriving in the post in early September signalled the beginning of what was called ‘the campaign’.
From October to New Year the tractors and trailers could be seen on the Duncannon Line, convoying their way to the railway station depot, the queue spilling backwards into the village of Wellingtonbridge on wet days, dry days, crisp days, waiting to have their loads assessed for tare and sugar content.
Later the same beet would jicket-can its way to the factory towns of Thurles or Mallow where the sugar was finally extracted.
The pulling of the beet was the culmination of many months of work. From ploughing the ground in the spring, to spreading the blue-grey limestone that was quarried in Ballycullen and tipped in mini Sugar-Loaf shapes at field gates, to harrowing the ground, to sowing and fertilising.
Early summer meant walking the fields, a prayer escaping to the wind for the right mix of sunshine and showers that year, eyes peeled for wireworm and wireweed, red shank and leatherjacket, chickweed, scutch grass, dead nettle and lamb’s quarter that could suffocate plants and profits.
Then there was the tillage farmer’s satisfaction of seeing the beet leaves meet in the drills and, as summer ran into autumn, the leaves opening their arms to the sun so that the heat could soak down and sweeten the waiting root to the level of fourteen teaspoons of sugar per beet. The silence of the winters now makes me want to remember the crop, to mark its absence, even three winters after its passing. I feel the urge to peel back the thick skin of its history, to reveal a milky glimpse of what was once a sweet story of success.
Sugar beet, I know now, wasn’t just a twentieth-century crop in Ireland. Although the first factory opened in Carlow in 1926, sugar beet had been grown in Achill and Antrim as far back as the 1840s, and in 1851 the Royal Irish Beet Root Sugar Company had been set up in a move to break the country’s dependence on imported cane sugar.
Although that company wasn’t successful in the long run, intelligent men on the Irish Industries Commission in the 1880s knew a good crop when they saw it.
‘A moist climate with moderate sun is what the beet requires and such is the climate of Ireland,‘ pronounced Mr. Baruchson.
But sugar beet’s European history goes back much further to the time when the Berlin scientist Margraf discovered a technique for extracting sugar from beet in the 1700s.
The Irish had a hand in the scientific development of the industry as well with Trinity professor John Hewit Jellett inventing an analysing prism in 1860. This made it possible to determine the sugar content of beet by means of a rotating ray of light.
On the mechanisation front the Irish also later played their part through the development of machinery to sow and harvest the crop-designs that were subsequently sold worldwide.
It’s the silence of the winter that still jars. There’s sadness at the loss of the crop that once brought pastoral and industrial man together, as the sugar beet industry’s chronicler, Michael Foy, once put it.
There’s sudden unease too when the eye falls on obsolete machinery in the shed – now mechanical monuments to times past – and my ear still somehow expects to hear the clatter of the cleaner loader in the yard, the tractor and its driver working late into the evening, driving back and forth, forth and back, putting up the load for an early start.
It’s then that a sudden sigh escapes to the wind for the crop and the industry that has passed in the night and the work rhythm that has gone out of winter. It’s then that I know that I too, am still missing the beet.