On Sept. 28-30, 2021, the Sugar Association, together with the American Crystal Sugar Company and the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, held their first “Farm to Table” tour for seven social media influencers from across the United States.

The main goal of the tour was to demystify where sugar comes from and humanize the sugar industry to these influential experts, according to Dr. Courtney Gaine, the president and CEO of the Sugar Association.

“We know that consumers want to know where their food comes from, yet we’ve learned through research that only a third of consumers know that sugar comes from plants,” Gaine said. “We wanted to give social media influencers in the categories of lifestyle, wellness and diet the opportunity to meet some of the passionate, hardworking farm families of the American sugarbeet industry. Bringing them to the Red River Valley was a way to tangibly show folks the real sugar story and have them experience it firsthand. The goal was that they would remember their experience and share it when they feel it’s appropriate.”

The Sugar Association is the scientific voice of the United States sugar industry. It works to support responsible scientific research and share credible research and information to increase consumer understanding and confidence of the role that sugar plays in a nutritious and balanced diet.

When planning the tour, the Sugar Association looked for social media influencers who are open-minded and credible, passionate about education, and have a balanced approach to diet and lifestyle.

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“We had six dietitians and one chef on the tour, and only one had been to North Dakota before,” Gaine said. “We wanted to show them all of the exciting technology that goes into farming sugarbeets and have them feel emotionally invested in this industry.”

The three-day tour kicked off on Sept. 28 with an educational presentation by the Sugar Association, the American Crystal Sugar Company and the RRVSGA. On Sept. 29, the influencers visited 157 Farms, owned by Erik Bakke and Beau Jacobsen, in Ulen, Minnesota. The tour wrapped up on Sept. 30 with a tour of the American Crystal Moorhead factory.

A group of influencers visited the Red River Valley, where they learned about the sugar industry on farms and in factories.
Courtesy of the Sugar Association
A group of influencers visited the Red River Valley, where they learned about the sugar industry on farms and in factories. Courtesy of the Sugar Association
“It was 90 degree weather on the day of the tour, but I think everyone had an amazing time. I know I did,” said Gaine. “While the fields are beautiful, the tractors fun to ride and the factory impressive, it was the people on the ground that made it so special. We are so grateful to all of the time given by so many people to ensure that our guests had an incredible experience.”

The tour was the first visit to a sugarbeet farm for social media influencer and registered dietitian Rosanne Rust of Venice, Florida.

“I’ve visited vegetable farms, an apple farm, and dairy, beef and pork productions, but the only factory experience I’d had before this was an apple storage and processing plant,” Rust said.

Rust, a registered dietitian who holds a Master of Science in nutrition degree from the University of Pittsburgh, has over 30 years of experience working in a variety of settings. She currently works as a nutrition communications consultant and has written textbook chapters and journal articles.

She has co-authored several diet and nutrition consumer books, and her new book, “Zero Food Waste for Dummies®,” will be published in January 2022.

“On the farm tour, my first impression was of the vastness of the sugarbeet farm. A highlight was the opportunity to ride along in the tractor. The size and specificity of the equipment and machinery for sugarbeet farming is especially impressive!” Rust said. “My son is a CNC machinist who manufactures aerospace parts, so I thought it was amazing to see how the sugarbeet lifters were designed and how all the equipment works so efficiently together. I think stories like this should be presented to high school students across America so they understand what it takes to get food to the table.”

Rust’s passion is presenting science and facts to her social media followers and dispelling myths about what consumers perceive as “controversial” ingredients.

“I believe that all foods can fit into a healthy diet, and there should be no guilt or fear associated with eating,” she said. “I’ve been known to say, ‘I have a sweet tooth but I don’t sugarcoat.’”

After participating in the tour, Rust said she enjoyed seeing the sugarbeets go from field to factory and is excited to share the total loop from farm to table with her social media followers.

“One of the most interesting things I learned is that sugar is completely extracted from the sugarbeet plant and that is all done under one factory roof, rather than at multiple locations. Seeing the whole process helps connect the dots to the ‘where does food come from’ story. I also want them to understand more about all the people — from farmers to engineers — who work to bring us food and ingredients,” she said. “I also think that the science of farming and the manufacturing part of the story is really important right now, too. Kids and young adults need to know that there are scientists and engineers in the food industry that bring food to life.”

Touring a sugarbeet farm was also a first for registered dietitian nutritionist Melissa Joy Dobbins from Chicago, Illinois. Dobbins, who is best known for her podcast “Sound Bites,” is also a certified diabetes educator and has served as a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In 2013, she was an expert witness for the United States federal government on a federal trade commission case involving false health and diet claims purported on late night infomercials.

Rosanne Rust talks to Mindy Bakke as a group of dietary influencers experiences sugarbeet harvest in the Red River Valley.
Courtesy of the Sugar Association
Rosanne Rust talks to Mindy Bakke as a group of dietary influencers experiences sugarbeet harvest in the Red River Valley. Courtesy of the Sugar Association
“I’ve been on a lot of farm tours throughout the United States as well as in Canada and Europe, but I had never been to a sugarbeet farm before. It was very interesting. I know a lot about soil health and how weather impacts farming, but I had no prior sugarbeet knowledge,” Dobbins said. “I didn’t know what they looked like before taking the tour and I was amazed that their roots grow so deep.”

Dobbins has been a dietitian for almost 30 years and a certified diabetes educator for 25 years. Her motto is “I’m the Guilt-Free RD because food shouldn’t make you feel bad!” and her mission is to promote sound science, smart nutrition and good food.

“I empower people because they shouldn’t feel guilty about the food they eat,” Dobbins said. “I help people understand food labels and make the discussion around food less fear-based. I convey positive messages based on facts, not fear, and work to teach people that they don’t need to worry about certain buzzwords when it comes to nutrition.”

Learning more about sugar production is an exciting opportunity for a diabetes educator, according to Dobbins.

“I get a lot of questions about sugar. People often think that honey is better than sugar, but the fact is that all sugar is the same — all sugars are carbohydrates. People with diabetes need to understand that,” she said. “You can eat anything you want, but you should pay attention to portion sizes and how foods affect your blood sugar levels. There are no ‘good foods’ versus ‘bad foods.’ You learn this if you have diabetes, and I wish that everyone else would learn this perspective as well. We have to take the stigma away from sugar and diabetes.”

As a dietitian, Dobbins wants people to know that it’s all about balance and balance will look different to different people.

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to nutrition,” she said. “As a dietitian, I personalize and tailor different priorities for different people. Everyone is unique.”

Helping people evaluate the source of their nutrition information and providing them with scientific facts is the goal of Dobbins’ Sound Bites podcast.

“My podcast has been out for more than six years, and I interview experts on topics ranging from fad diets to farming,” she said. “I talk with farmers and producers and get their perspectives, and put out accurate, credible information.”

Dobbins said it is critically important for farmers to tell their story to the American consumer public.

“Consumers want more information about farming and where their food is coming from. They don’t always trust industry, but they do trust farmers,” she said. “Farmers have a great story that they shouldn't be afraid to tell. It reaps rewards to give consumers more information. Good things happen.”

When farmers share information with consumers, it builds trust.

Will Coleman, Melissa Joy Dobbins and Ali Swietek discuss their plan of attack for the cupcake contest.
Courtesy of the Sugar Association
Will Coleman, Melissa Joy Dobbins and Ali Swietek discuss their plan of attack for the cupcake contest. Courtesy of the Sugar Association
“On social media, I want to show consumers that they can trust that farmers know what they’re doing,” Dobbins said. “It scares me when technology gets taken away from farmers by consumers and non-farmers. Farmers should get to make their own decisions, so the more people can know and understand about farming, the better. People don’t always understand the specifics, but they understand and appreciate the overall concepts.”

Both Rust and Dobbins said they enjoyed talking with sugarbeet farmers on the tour, learning about the cooperative system and experiencing the strong sense of community in the American sugarbeet industry.

“It’s an awesome crop and I want people to know about it,” Dobbins said.