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Cultivation and harvesting of sugar

Sugar cane and sugar beet

Sugar cane and sugar beet have different characteristics and require different climates and soil conditions to grow.

Find out more below.

Sugar Cane

Sugar cane

Sugar cane is a fast-growing crop, typically grown on large plantations. As the crop needs warm and wet conditions to thrive, it is most often grown in countries near the equator, where average temperatures are 24°c (75°F), and where there are good water supplies from heavy rainfall or irrigation. Brazil is the largest grower of sugar cane. Other sugar cane growing countries include India, Thailand, China, Australia, the USA and Mexico (1). Sugar cane is propagated by planting cuttings of mature stalks called ‘setts or billets’, approximately 1.5 meters apart, in prepared fields (2). The cuttings develop a root system and, over time, sprout growing canes which form a stool of cane. This stool of cane generates several sugar cane stalks from its rootstock, from which the crop is harvested. The growth period for sugar cane varies, depending on the region.
Famer holding beet

Sugar beets

Sugar beets are grown in temperate regions such as those in Europe and North America, where there is a cold winter period. Sugar beets are biennial crops, taking two years from germination to seed set (3). During the first year, the crop becomes established, and the crop goes through its main phase of production. In the second year, which only takes place after vernalisation (the plant's flowering process) during the winter, the crop enters its reproductive phase. To grow at their best, sugar beets need soil that is moist and rich in organic matter (3). Sugar beets are currently grown in approximately 57 countries across the world. The largest producers of sugar beet include Russia, France, the United States and Germany (1).

The harvest

Sugar cane and sugar beets are harvested either manually or using mechanical harvesters. Machine harvesters are more efficient and help to prepare the field for the next year’s crop. Once harvested, the sugar cane or beet crop is taken to a nearby mill and refinery (for sugar cane) or refinery (for sugar beet) for further processing.  
Timing is crucial in the harvesting of both sugar cane and sugar beets. Picking the crops at their peak ensures maximum sucrose levels. Harvesting too early results in underdeveloped sugars, while delaying can lead to a decline in quality. Cane sugar is always harvested in the dry season.  A sample may be taken from the field or plantation to check the sucrose content of the crop ahead of harvest (4). 


  1. FAO STAT. 2024. 
  2. Yamane, T. Sugarcane. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Sugarcane. 2023. 
  3. Qi, A. Sugar Beet Production Under Changing Climate: Opportunities and Challenges. In: Misra, V., Srivastava, S., Mall, A.K. (eds) Sugar Beet Cultivation, Management and Processing. 2022. Springer, Singapore. 
  4. Ragus. Sugar Beet Harvest from Field to Factory. 2019.