Arriving at work today, the first thing I noticed when I got out of my car downtown was the unmistakable odor of beets. It's not uncommon this time of year, but today the wind must have been blowing just right because the smell was pretty powerful, even inside our offices.

Anyone who is new to Billings or is visiting in the fall and winter will often ask about the gross smell you frequently notice around downtown.  While there are a number of smelly things downtown, it's usually the odor coming from Western Sugar, aptly located on Sugar Avenue.

You might think it stinks, but when I ask my farmer friends they tell me, "Michael, that's the smell of money".  I live in Laurel and I say the same thing about the refinery smell, or the noise from the trains... sounds like/smells like money to me, lol.  We sometimes forget that our local economy is largely still based on ag producers and our abundant natural resources.

Montana is one of the largest sugar beet growing states in the US. And the majority of the sugar we eat does not come from cane, but from beets! Montana produces around 1.5 MILLION TONS of sugar beets per year. Mostly from our area and eastern Montana.

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Beets vary in sugar content, usually around 16-17% sugar.  The higher the sugar content, the more valuable the beet. After leaving the farm they head to the sugar refinery and are shredded into smaller strips.  The strips are then processed with hot water (the "smoke" you see from the refinery is actually steam) and go thru a number of processes that separate the pulp from the juice. The juice is the further refined for the desired final product. Did you know it takes about two large (8-10 lb beets) to make about 1 cup of sugar and a 1/2 cup of blackstrap molasses?  That's a lot of beets to make a 5 lb bag of sugar.

If you would like to learn how to make your own sugar from sugar beets, here is a fairly easy project your kids might enjoy, on a much smaller scale from Richters Herbs: Make your own sugar from beets! I'll have to give this a whirl.  Other than making a giant mess in my kitchen, I'll let you know how it turns out.

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