Western Nebraska Home Locale: Located 20 miles east of the Wyoming-Nebraska border, my home town of Scottsbluff, Nebraska has held a steady population of approximately 15,000 through the years. We lived in the city itself until I was nine years old and moved to a farm. I loved the independence and socialization this afforded. Since the setting was small town life in the 1960s, my siblings and I roamed freely from home, school, swimming pool, church, movie theatre, library, and Granny’s house.
My days in town were filled with activity. During summer vacations on the farm, I primarily wrote letters to my aunts and friends. At other times, I watched television, racking up enough game show hours to last me a lifetime. With much gratitude, my 16th birthday signaled my eligibility for a driver’s license and, eventually, a car. And then came my independence day, May 20, 1979: high school graduation.
Urban Centers of My Adulthood: That fall, I made a desired move to the city of Omaha for college, a large city with a small town feel on Nebraska’s eastern border. I lived there for 11 years, completing two degrees and a seven-year stint as a social worker. In 1990, I moved to another urban center, Denver, Colorado to pursue graduate theological studies. To this day, I remain here. In 2010, my partner (now husband) and lovely Bichon Frise pet dog, Maxie, joined me.
Sugar Beets in Western Nebraska: During the first year on our farm, our tenant farmer planted sugar beets as one of four crops. We only grew them that year, most likely due to the labor-intensive aspects of sugar-beet growing plus the fact that my dad wanted an extra field for beans. Nonetheless, sugar beets continued as part of my childhood. They only ceased production on our farm. Sugar beets were and are still grown in that part of the state.
I remember my youth leader and her husband raised this crop. In the summers, she and others kept busy weeding and thinning the darn things by hand just as Maria and David Child had done a century earlier. Maria, writing to friends, described this aspect: “I often go and help him weed three or four hours night and morning. In the morning I go out sometimes at 3 o’clock, sometimes at 4; when all the world, except the birds, are asleep.”
In Western Nebraska, in order to keep up with the demands of hand labor, the sugar beet industry has relied heavily on seasonal migrant workers since its introduction to the region around 1910. From 1920 to the present (although less and less needed due to advances in technology), Mexican and Mexican-American migrant and seasonal farmworkers provided the majority of the hand labor. As an adult, I now understand many of the injustices perpetuated in growing crops so dependent on back-breaking labor.
Lessons Learned from the Sugar Beet Factory Work: My direct childhood connection to beets went beyond the plants themselves. I learned several life lessons from those early associations to sugar beets. First, I realized that many people depended upon the sugar-beet industry for their livelihoods. Secondly, knowing about people’s schedules at the factories introduced me to shift work since the refineries remained open 24 hours per day. On the surface, this is an insignificant fact. However, to my eight-year-old mind, it was a critical component of my conscious awakening to other people’s lives. This awareness also helped me easily accept non-traditional work hours later in my own career.
Sugar Factory Tours: When in third grade, my family and I received a private tour of the Mitchell, Nebraska factory from our family chum who worked there full-time. The many steps in the sugar extraction process intrigued me. Forty-two years later in 2011, my friend Rosie Cobos and I happily participated in another one. The Western Sugar Cooperative in Scottsbluff began offering guided tours each December, a fundraiser for college scholarships. Starting with interesting lectures, a tasty catered meal follows the trek around the factory. My child self would never have imagined the fun Rosie and I had on that tour!
2011 Factory Tour, view from the roof
Deadly Accident at a Sugar Factory: When in college, a deadly accident at the sugar factory in Scottsbluff stunned me. While inside one of the silos, a high school mate’s brother suffocated when the granules of sugar tumbled down over him. My brother attended the funeral. Until that moment, I had no idea of the connection between danger and sugar beets.
Flying Away from the Farm: After the tragedy, I seldom thought about beets. I physically withdrew from my agricultural roots. I rarely returned to the farming community except for visits to the family. Even those stays became strained and short due to my parents’ nasty divorce and the difficult aftermath. Farming did not occupy my mind again in a positive manner until my doctoral studies. With my discovery of David Child’s sugar-beet efforts (see Part I posted on November 11, 2013), the seeds for a change of heart were planted and began to grow.
 Lydia Maria Child, Selected Letters