I think that I have finally isolated the great symbol of a recent set of intellectual and spiritual quandaries that I have found myself working through of late. I am not talking about polygamy, Adam-God, or blood atonement. I have in mind an even more challenging remnant of our past: sugar beets.
Sugar beets are beets from which can be distilled sugar. (Hence the name.) The actually account for a fair amount of the sweeteners used in the United States, corn syrup being the other big one. Furthermore, Mormons have been into sugar beets in a big way for a long time. In his quest for potential cash crops for the Mormon commonwealth, Brigham Young hit upon the idea of growing sugar beets, which at the time were an exotic, cutting edge agricultural technology. Apparently getting the sugar out of the beets is a rather complicated process. Brigham sent John Taylor on a mission to France to get the necessary technology and Mormons spent the rest of the 19th century trying to grow sugar beets in the soil of Utah and south-eastern Idaho. Initially, the alkaline soil chemically changed the beets, messing up the French technology, but Brigham ? and later John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Lorenzo Snow ? persisted. Cooperatives were set up. New methods were developed, and in the end the sugar beet took its place in the pantheon of the Inter-Mountain West’s staple crops. Today, Church owned farms continue to grow sugar beets.
At this point, I am sure that you ? gentle reader ? are yawning. For crying out loud! What is so interesting ? let alone disturbing ? about sugar beets. My problem comes from the fact that strictly speaking, it doesn’t make any sense to have sugar beets. You’ll notice that none of the sugar you buy in the store comes from sugar beets. It all comes from sugar cane, mostly grown in Hawaii or the Caribbean. Sugar-beet sugar, which is of an inferior quality, is used in “industrial” products, e.g. soda, processed food, etc.. The reason that we have a sugar beet industry today is that the government protects it. We subsidize sugar beet farming and limit competition from sugar cane grown south of the border ? and south of the Florida keys.
The sugar beet seems to me like a good symbol of 19th-century Mormon communitarianism. It represented a melding of central economic planning (people were called on sugar beet missions), the melding of ecclesiastical and temporal concerns, and the attempt to establish an economically viable and independent Mormon community. In short, it seems to me that the sugar beet represents an important and in some ways halcyon moment in our history. It is all together a product of that dream of a very literal Mormon Zion. Like it or not, we all bear the marks on that communitarian dream in one shape or another.
Sugar beet production, however, was only remotely feasible because high transportation costs meant that Brigham’s Deseret would never have to compete with cheaper, higher-quality sugar from abroad. The same can be said of the communitarian Zion in general. It existed because of isolation and high barriers to entry. Initially these barriers were geographic. Later, Brigham tried to construct purely ideological barriers, like Zion’s Co-operative Mercantile Industries which was essentially a cartel of Mormon businesses against Gentile competitors. Not surprisingly, ZCMI ultimately failed to stem the falling barriers to entry into Mormondom. Despite flirting with Dannites, Avenging Angels, and out right war with the United States, ultimately Brigham ? and more dramatically Wilford Woodruff ? decided that they were not willing to resort to violence to set up permanent barriers around the kingdom. Hence the Zion of Deseret died.
The sugar beet survives precisely because the United States government has not fully taken the course adopted by Brigham and Wilford. It still uses the Coast Guard and the Customs Service ? in other words people with guns ? to keep out the sugar cane. In so doing it props up a hand full of farmers in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington by denying far poorer farmers in developing countries access to a lucrative market. It takes from the impoverished and gives to the lower middle class.
As should be clear, I think that the sugar beet industry should be taken out behind the barn and shot. Or more precisely, I think that it ought to pay its own way against sugar cane competition. This seems like a wiser and more just course to take. Yet, if I had my way yet another lingering institution of Brigham’s Zion would die.
There is much more at stake here than nostalgia. What is at stake is how I think social justice ought to be conceptualized. Do I opt for the individualist freedom that favors the sugar cane farmers or the lingering communitarian vision that favors the sugar beet farmers. By siding with liberalism and sugar cane against communitarianism and sugar beets, I feel as though I am on the other side of a gulf from Brigham and his Zion. It is a gulf that the Church, beginning with Brigham himself, seems to have crossed. Yet I am uncomfortable setting my back inevitably against the sugar beet past. I would like to salvage something of the communitarianism without paying the costs that the barriers upon which it depended ultimately created.