by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For a few decades, greater Los Angeles was the scene of significant efforts to develop a sugar beet industry as an alternative for producing sugar. The industry got its start in the United States when E.H. Dyer opened a factory at Alvarado, now part of Union City, between Oakland and San Jose, in 1879. Sugar kingpin Claus Spreckels had a massive sugar beet enterprise at Watsonville, near Monterey.
Less than a decade later, during the end of the Boom of the 1880s, Richard Gird, who made a mint in mining at Tombstone, Arizona Territory and who purchased the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino and founded the town of Chino, welcomed the raising of sugar beets in his new community.
Among those directly invested in operations in Chino were the four Oxnard brothers, whose French-born father was a well-known sugar producer in Louisiana. One of the clan, Henry, became spectacularly successful, helping to lobby for a bill in Congress that, in 1890, provided a bounty and significant financial incentive for sugar beet production. The Oxnards had refineries in Nebraska and at Chino, but Henry found a location near Ventura that suited him particularly for sugar beet raising and a new town arose called Oxnard.
There were other regions of greater Los Angeles that took to sugar beet raising at the end of the 19th and first few decades of the 20th century, including Anaheim, Irvine, and Santa Ana in Orange County (Dyer Road is named for the “father of the sugar beet industry”), the Cahuenga Valley near Hollywood, and portions of the San Fernando Valley. Among the most successful, however, was an area close to the ocean north of Long Beach.
A pair of unincorporated communities, Hynes and Clearwater, were actively engaged in sugar beet growing, especially in the 1900-1930 period. Today’s “Working the Land” post highlights an artifact from the Homestead’s collection, this being a real photo postcard, postmarked 18 August 1910.
It shows a horse-drawn wagon loaded with beets and an Anglo man sitting atop the crop, while several Latino men stand in front of the vehicle holding rakes in their hands. To the right is a dirt road and some buildings are in the distance. On the reverse of the card, a handwritten message noted that the field spanned 20 acres and generated 830 tons of beets.
Yet, by the end of the 1920s, sugar beets, which accounted for about a quarter of all sugar production in America at its peak marking a seven-fold increase from the turn of the century, went into decline. Much of this was due to the fact that beets have short growing seasons, are costly to process, and were subject to sharp drops in price.
Areas like Hynes and Clearwater, now part of the City of Paramount, switched to dairy farming as a the staple of their local economies and, when suburban development reached there, the dairy farmers headed east to places like Chino, which had long ago seen its sugar beet growing decline precipitously.
Whereas there were once eleven sugar beet factories in California, the last in the north closed a decade ago and one remains in Imperial County, but the presence of the industry has been long gone in this area.
There may, however, be a revival in the future for sugar beets. As explained by the University of California, Davis Agronomy Research and Information Center, there is an alternative energy possibility for the product as a bio-fuel. This is because the crop is considered “feed-stock neutral” by the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard. There is also research into increasing yields and developing year-round harvesting as well as technology to convert beets into ethanol. It may be that further work into the economical feasibility and environmental sustainability of growing beets in portions of California (though surely not most of greater Los Angeles) will lead to a comeback.
And, wouldn’t that beat all?