During World War II, President LeRoy E. Cowles encouraged University of Utah students to help struggling sugar beet farmers. Ads were placed in the Utah Chronicle to increase participation. The Chronicle reported that only 24 students had participated. Utah farmers continued looking for workers in the coming years but the industry fought to keep crops plentiful despite the shortage.
Sugar beets supplied half of the nation’s sugar by then. The U.S. military relied on sugar and foodstuffs for energy. In 45 years, Americans went from consuming 45 to 109 pounds of sugar per capita, making the U.S. the world’s largest sugar consumer. The sugar beet became a viable option because it grew where sugar cane couldn’t. Sugar beets, however, yielded a maximum of 15 percent sugar and thus required research to yield more. (Weeks, p. 370)
As early as June 1942, the North Cache News printed an article emphasizing the struggles that farmers faced in finding labor to thin their sugar beets. The locals suggested that farmers use children to help in the fields. While farmers were first reluctant, the crisis changed their minds. White-collar workers from Bingham City also helped the farmers of Cache Valley. The article points out that the labor shortage wasn’t only because of men turned soldiers, but also men working in the industries conducive to the war.
The Rich County Reaper reported on January 2, 1942, that 1.5 million workers would be needed by 1943 to produce sugar and other products. In addition, 12.7 million tons of sugar would be needed in 1943. This amount was twice as much as that needed in World War I.
University students might’ve thought the work was not worth doing because they were paid $1 per ton harvested. This amount translates to only $15 today, adjusted for inflation. The university, however, claimed it was patriotic to work in the beet fields and even offered transportation to and from the university to encourage students to do so. A Chronicle article published in the October 15, 1942, issue reported, “Even though it is difficult for students who are busy with defense jobs and activities …, they may, in a few spare hours after classes, do a job which to them might seem minute and unimportant, but which in reality will greatly aid in our war program.”
During this time, the Japanese relocation program had begun. The Topaz internment camp housed many of the displaced Japanese-Americans. On October 14, 1942, the Topaz Times printed a job announcement for topping sugar beets for $16 monthly pay. This work was attractive to Japanese men because they had little freedom. Fifty-six other Japanese men left for Cache County, while some went as far as Preston, Idaho, to work. Even Topaz only had 250 of the 400 workers needed there. Also, Mexican miners had started immigrating to Utah since the 1930s but by the 1940s about 60 families settled in Garland, Utah, to work in the sugar beet fields. Mexican immigrants were able to take advantage of the pay from the sugar beet industry and work toward building a community. (Solórzano, p. 18)
The new labor force helped the beet farmers harvest crops but they still required advancements in technology to reach their goals. Luckily, groups like the American Society of Sugar Beet Technologists were researching new ways to increase yields and were optimistic for the future of the industry. The Salt Lake Telegram reported on January 5, 1942, that a new method, tested in 326 beet fields, controlled irrigation and produced a higher sugar content within beets. Naphthalene acid amide was also a chemical being tested that could eliminate the leaf hopper, a type of fly that attacked the leaves on beet plants. The acid was reported to cause plant growth in some cases but damage in other cases.
The sugar beet industry suffered from a wide labor shortage, particularly because of the war. The university students’ reluctance to help was only part of a bigger problem. Farmers had to rely on immigrants and community members for their farms to survive. Small sugar yields helped win the war but more research needed to be done to make it successful.
Originally from the Columbia River Gorge area of Oregon, Andres Alcantar-Castro is a senior at the University of Utah. He will graduate in 2019 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication with an emphasis in journalism.
“Working in Beet Fields Is Patriotic and Fun,” Utah Chronicle, October 15, 1942, 5.
“Chairman Issues New Appeal for Student Labor,” Utah Chronicle, October 15, 1942, 1.
“Questions,” Topaz Times, October 14, 1942, 2-3.
“Farmers Accept Boys and Girls in Beet Fields” North Cache News, June 19, 1942, 4.
“Sugar Experts See Big Future for Industry” Salt Lake Telegram, January 5, 1942, 13.
“U. S. Farmers with Less Labor, Supplies, Machinery, Must Double the Production Shown in World War I,” Rich County Reaper, January 2, 1942, 3.
Solórzano, Armando. “The Making of Latino Families in Utah,” Beehive History 25 (August 31, 2009): 18.
Weeks, Michael. “Sugar State: Industry, Science, and the Nation in Colorado’s Sugar Beet Fields,” Western Historical Quarterly 48, no. 4 (October 2017): 367–391.