Life in a sugar production town
I grew up in one of the two Swiss towns where sugar is produced, and despite the factory being located at the opposite end of my hometown, the production of sugar had always played a part in my childhood. Swiss sugar is made from sugar beet, a large, outside brown/inside white, sweet tasting root plant. There were several sugar beet fields on my one kilometre (2 miles) walk to primary school in my hometown Frauenfeld (canton of Thurgau), and after the farmers had harvested the beets in autumn, there were always some leftover beets lying in the soil. We loved to take one home, peel it and suck out the sweet, sugary juice or even eat it – this was the sign that soon life in Frauenfeld would be dominated by the sugar production for three months, and that autumn truly had arrived with its cold and foggy mornings.
The sugar beet plant is grown all over northern Switzerland and every year at harvest time, beets can be seen everywhere in Frauenfeld. The roads are populated, sometimes blocked, with small and large trucks, bringing their beets to the factory. And if you’re waiting for a train at the train station you would always see one or several long freight trains piled up high with sugar beets, waiting on the tracks in the queue for being allowed to continue their journey to the sugar factory with its direct train access – 50% of all sugar beets are being transported to the two Swiss sugar factories by train, not a bad quota from an ecological point of view. But it doesn’t stop at the sight of sugar beets in Frauenfeld; even more dominant is the smell that hangs over the town each autumn. I’m not sure whether I can describe it properly – it’s a very strong, very earthy, smoky, sweet, beet-like smell, often combined with the damp smell of the thick white fog that Frauenfeld sees so often in autumn due to its closeness to the river Thur. No matter how far away from the factory you are in town, the smell is everywhere, and it’s strong. People from out of town often find it quite impossible, but for those like me who had grown up there it tastes like home and like autumn; most of us are very fond of it.
How to turn beets into sugar
The two sugar factories (the other one is in Aarberg in the canton of Berne) belong to the same company. During their three months of production, the production process is going on 24/7 and they go through 1000 beets per factory per day – 1 kilogram of caster sugar require 8-9 sugar beets. They are cut and pressed and the resulting juice is being cleaned, thickened and cristallised. During the production process, several side products arise, such as animal food and fertilisers which can be seen piled up in tall mountains next to the factory. During the production months the machines are in need of constant repairs, I can’t remember the exact number but the amount of beet cutting knives that need to be replaced is stunningly high. After December, once all beets are processed, a 9 month long period of total revision of all machines follows.
If you’d like to know more about the sugar production, I can highly recommend a sugar factory tour either in Frauenfeld or Aarau, which is offered from mid October to early December for CHF10 per person. I attended one of those tours about 15 years ago and it was highly fascinating.
There have been easier times for Swiss sugar, the sugar price of the European Union has fallen and the EU has turned from a sugar importer to a sugar exporter which puts our production and prices under pressure. But what’s better than buying a local product, helping the local farmers and reducing our carbon footprint!