Local News

Sugar beets gave way to tomatoes as Yolo’s top crop

By From page A10 | November 08, 2013

Though Yolo County’s crop values were not tracked during the World War II years, there’s still a good indication of what was driving the area’s agriculture at that time.

“That’s when sugar beets were a top crop,” Yolo County Ag Commissioner John Young said, mentioning that sugar beets were valued at more than $5 million in 1946. “Shortly after, it became processing tomatoes, where it has pretty well resided ever since.”

By contrast, the 2012 Yolo County crop report doesn’t even list sugar beets within the top 20 commodities. The top slot has been, as Young mentioned, usurped by tomatoes, which were valued at $111.6 million in the most recent survey.

The decline in the sugar beet production, Young said, had to do with a gradual change in where it was sourced. Imported cane sugar and sugar from other sources, such as corn, eventually overcame the demand for sugar beets.

“Industries change,” he explained. “They’re never static. Different worldwide market pressures come to bear, and the cropping patterns change based on that market demand.”

Nestled up against the location of Clarksburg’s first farm labor camp is a facility that stands as a testament to that change. The Old Sugar Mill, at 35265 Willow Ave., formerly processed a large amount of the region’s sugar beets.

In 2001, the plant, which had been in operation since 1936, closed. It’s now a historic novelty that houses 10 winery tasting rooms.

Given that sugar beet production and harvesting were highly labor-intensive, the depleted manpower in the state’s farms during the war required even more workers in the fields than the German prisoners provided.

Sugar beet growers and other farmers made a request for Mexican labor at the onset of WWII, and thus began what would come to be known as the bracero system, according to braceroarchive.org.

The parents of Alberto Castillo, a Davis resident, came to Yolo County as braceros just as the war was ending. Besides filling the need for agricultural workers, it also allowed immigrants like Castillo’s parents to become naturalized citizens.

“I hate to think of what our lives would have been like if we had continued back to Mexico,” Castillo said. “It is truly a blessing to live in the United States.”

Brett Johnson

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