Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 2010


Published in Great Plains Research 20.1 (Spring 2010): 149-50.


Copyright 2010 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Used by permission.


From its origins at the end of the 19th century, the American sugar beet industry has been linked to Mexican immigrant labor. Moreover, the painstaking job of thinning, topping, and harvesting the large and heavy beets became an almost entirely Mexican labor specialty by the turn of the 20th century. Betabeleros, as the Mexican and Mexican-American laborers were and are known, sojourned north from the borderlands to Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, South and North Dakota, Michigan, and Minnesota fields. In each of these states, the sugar beet industry willingly pursued immigrant labor to do the work while immigrant networks did much of the recruiting. At the same time, sugar beet production, in combination with railroad work, meat packing, construction, and other manual occupations, modified the demographic landscape of the Great Plains and Upper Midwest. The constant migratory movement eventually produced Mexican enclaves that dotted the region.

The seasonal nature of sugar beet farming and the hard manual labor it entailed created intricate relations among immigrants, growers, and industrial producers. This is precisely what Jim Norris addresses in his study of the sugar beet industry in the Red River Valley in North Dakota and Minnesota. Based on an in-depth review of the literature, archives, and interviews, Norris reconstructs the sugar beet history of the valley from the end of World War I until the 1970s, presenting along the way the complex history of the relationships among growers, sugar company, and labor.