By the late 1800s, several farmers on the Western Slope had already turned to the lucrative crop of sugar beets. Throughout much of the century, sugar beet production was the most important agricultural activity in Colorado. Over twenty refining factories were constructed by 1920, and they shaped the future of many communities across the state. The Holly Sugar factory in Delta was no exception and the lasting impacts of its presence, as well as its demise, are still evident today.
The large, pale sugar beet was referred to as “white gold” by farmers. Compensations was paid according to the sugar content of their individual crops. The annual crop consistently produced a yearly check that the farmers of Delta County could count on but, until 1920, they had to haul them by wagons to beet dumps on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. They were then brought by train for processing in Grand Junction. The farmers of Delta County petitioned to attract the sugar industry to build a local factory and their plea was finally heard in 1920.
Several sugar companies prospected Delta for a factory of its own, and after some heated debate by a large gathering of local farmers at a luncheon banquet, the Holly Sugar Corporation was selected. That farmers' banquet became the first of many annual events to follow and eventually became known as Deltarado Days. Construction of the factory began in the spring of 1920; and soon the open land that the Holly Corporation purchased, just north of Delta, was consumed by massive infrastructure and numerous accompanying operations.
The immediate problem for the new plant was a lack of labor force to handle the workload. Harvesting and thinning, among other tasks, called for several workers. Women and children were often used in the thinning process and were considered efficient at the task but several other factory positions suddenly needed to be filled. Several local families actually took seasonal work in the plant. The timing worked well for farmers as the bulk of processing took place after their fields were harvested.
Even with seasonal labor, there was still a need for workers and the company had a desire to promote more beet farming to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for sugar. Several immigrant families were sought out and courted to move to Delta County. Prospective beet farmers were offered reasonable land with the option of purchasing it along with housing options for newly arriving families. Some of the first immigrants were German-Russians from the midwest. A significant number of Hispanics soon began to stream into the area from New Mexico and the San Luis Valley to farm and work in the factory. Although many were migrant in nature, several chose to stay in the Delta area and their dependents make up a vital part of the community today.
Sugar beets continued to be one of the most important cash crops in the county for nearly eighty years. At the peak of production, in the 1970s, over 10,000 acres of beets were cultivated on the Western Slope alone. However, without any warning, the Holly Sugar Factory suddenly closed its doors in 1977. Several farmers were already in the process of preparing their fields when the news broke. Several economic factors were attributed to the factory’s demise including costly outdated equipment and the plummeting price of sugar due to competition from foreign sugarcane producers.
The imposing silos that now stand lonely in North Delta are the only reminders of an industry that once dominated much of the land and lives of the residents of Delta. Most of the farmers on the Western Slope turned to sweet corn and feed corn as an alternative in their fields but the returns were never the same. Some decided to throw in the towel altogether as no other crop would ever offer the consistent bottom line of beets again until the recent boom of hemp production and the widespread sustainability of that is somewhat questionable.
The potential for the sugar beet to make a comeback is still a possibility and, in some areas of the state, it already has. Several acres of test fields were planted in the early 2000s to find the highest yielding sugar beet. Entities from agricultural science departments at Colorado State University along with several of the sugar companies have been exploring possibilities. Some of these fields were outside of Delta. Technological advancements have improved efficiency of the sugar beet and higher yields can now be grown in smaller areas. Hopes that the sweet profits of the once bumper beet crops of old could return are in the air once again.
For more information on this and other historically related stories in Delta County, please visit your local museums. The museums of Delta, Cedaredge, Hotchkiss, and Paonia are a wealth of information and images.