The sugarbeet plant is biennial, meaning it grows leaves and roots the first year, goes dormant for the winter, then flowers, and produces seeds the following year before dying. Seed companies have developed techniques to simulate this growth cycle and produce sugarbeet seed within about 12 months under the right conditions.
Most sugarbeet seed production for U.S. beet sugar companies occurs in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. This area is ideal for growing sugarbeet seed and other seed varieties due to several factors, including fertile soil, adequate water supply, long and mild winters, and dry weather conditions at harvest time to allow for seed drying.
Sugarbeet seed used by Amalgamated Sugar growers is produced by using stecklings. Stecklings, or young sugarbeet plants, are grown from basic seeds planted in July or August. An important note—new varieties of seed used to grow the stecklings can take ten to fifteen years and millions of dollars in research and development to produce before ever becoming commercially available. The plants grow for about four months before they are vernalized. Vernalization is the process of a plant going dormant in cold temperatures, which helps the plant prepare to flower and produce seed during the next year. Depending on the location, time of planting, and production practices, the stecklings will either be left in the soil for the winter or will be harvested, stored in cool conditions, and transplanted in February or March.
The stecklings grow in blocks, with specific numbers of female and male plants per row—female plants typically in blocks of four to eight rows and male (pollinator) plants in two to four rows. In the spring, the plants come out of dormancy with the longer days and warmer temperatures and produce a “bolt” or seed stalk. Once pollination occurs, the rows of pollinator plants are removed from the field, leaving only the female plants that produce the seed for commercial sugarbeet planting.
The sugarbeet seed stalks mature and are ready to be harvested in late July to early August. The plants are swathed into windrows, often during the early morning or evening, when the humidity is higher. Higher humidity helps reduce the shattering of seeds. The seed is allowed to dry for 7 to 10 days, then is processed with a combine to separate the seeds from the plant material. The harvested seed is loaded into large tote boxes, labeled, and sent to a warehouse where the seed is cleaned and weighed before being transported to a seed company.
The seed companies further clean the sugarbeet seeds and perform quality checks including x-rays to determine monogermity (a single embryo in the seed and not multiple embryos, or “single germ”) and tests for germination rate. The seed is mechanically graded and sized, then primed. Priming is where the seed is exposed to certain temperatures and moisture levels to start the germination process, then at a specific time the process is stopped. Priming allows the seed to germinate faster once it is planted. The seeds are then coated with pelleting material. The final step in the seed production process is coating the pelleted seed with a mixture of specific pesticides and insecticides, usually along with a color that indicates a particular seed company. The finished seed pellets are then packaged and sent to growers for planting.
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