Sugar Beet Harvest

Recently, as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, mostly in an effort to avoid working on a chapter in my thesis that was quickly become painful (think: redundant, superfluous, unnecessary, beating a dead horse, and just overall not adding a single new idea to academic discourse), I came across the headlines for the daily newspaper in my hometown. The Idaho Press Tribune has been a part of my reading repertoire since before I could actually decipher letters, words, paragraphs and articles. While that jet black in was still nothing more than strange black squiggles on paper, I was able look at the photographs, make stories out of the comics and figure out if there was going to be a yellow sun in the sky or a menacing cloud with a lightning bolt overhead each morning.  Living overseas, it has been years since I actually had a subscription to the paper, but that doesn’t mean I’m not up to date with happenings in the Valley. Not only do I see the headlines in my Facebook feed each evening (the advantage to being fourteen hours ahead in that the morning news stories show up before I go to bed), but I still get occasional clippings in the mail from my dear mother. (I never know which stories are going to show up in the envelope. It might be one about a former student who is doing well. Or maybe the story will be about someone we went to church with growing up. Book lists often make the clippings cut, as do random comic strips and the occasional goofy article included just to make me laugh.)

Most of the stories that make the newsfeed headlines have to do with local construction projects that are shutting down lanes of the freeway or the drama of a school board election recall campaign. Those pass me by like Malaysian snatch and grab hoodlums on scooters. But, recently, one caught my eye and then my heart.  The headline read: “Sugar beet harvest on the horizon.” Of all the days for the IPT posting to catch my eye, it was the day they wrote about the sugar beet harvest. I instantly felt a pang of homesickness, as nothing says fall in southern Idaho quite like the sugar beet harvest.

Sugar beets hold a special place in the memories of my childhood. I was fascinated by those giant brown tubers. Once harvest season started, giant trucks filled over the brim with the beets would roll by our house, one after another, all day long. Because they were filled by other giant machines, they were always overly full, meaning as they sped along the road, the top-most layer of beets fell to the wayside, littering the edges of the country roads. I can’t begin to count how many of those sugar beets I collected with my sister and brother over the years. For a long time, I was convinced that if I could crack one open, I’d find it full of sugar. After all, it was a *sugar* beet. In my eight year old mind, if I could only get through that tough outer layer, I’d have cups of refined sugar, just like the stuff in the yellow Tupperware sugar bowl on the dining room table. Sweet! Of course, the truth was about as polar opposite of that as one can imagine, which I found out once we were finally able to chop through one of the beets with a sharp-edged shovel.

No sugar.

That’s what the sugar beet factory is for. That appellation itself is a bit divisive. Everyone who was raised in the area calls it nothing more and there is no need to explain that the factory actually refines sugar and doesn’t *make* sugar beets, as the name seems to imply. I’ve heard people argue that it isn’t correct terminology to refer to the operations as a sugar beet factory, but these are usually the same folks who’ve moved in from California and Texas who think Boise is pronounced with a “z” sound at the end. You’re non-Idahoan ways are showing, folks!

If you are local to the Treasure Valley, the sugar beet factory is a landmark, both visually and olfactory.  Someone once tried to tell me it had an “almond-y” smell, which I would heartily disagree with, but after living away from home for so many years, I must admit to a fondness for the unique stink that permeates the valley during processing season. One whiff of that unique odor and I know I am home.

It’s a bit ironic that I’m weirdly touched by an agricultural headline from home at a time when agriculture in Southeast Asia seems to be trying to kill us all. Indonesia is burning crops at the end of the growing season (and forests in an attempt to make more room for palm oil plantations) and the smoke from their fires is infiltrating the Malaysian peninsula to an unprecedented level. The air has been so hazy that Malaysian schools have been cancelled three days in the last two weeks and it burns my eyes to be outside for more than an hour or two at a time.  Maybe it is precisely because of the current air situation in Malaysia that I am drawn to stories of home, where the sky is blue, the leaves are changing color and the harvest is in full swing.

It doesn’t matter how far I travel or how many stamps clutter up the pages of my passport, at heart I will always be from Idaho, land of sugar beets and giant trucks and that oh-so-familiar smell of Nampa’s sugar beet factory, as well as home of the Idaho-Press Tribune, a relic in world where news consumption has shifted to the online world rather than the rolled up paper delivered to one’s driveway each morning.

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