Sugar beet growers will never want to see another campaign like this one. That’s if they remain in the crop.
Having gone through a decade of change, growers collectively now face losing millions, with winter weather hitting the crop and causing processing chaos at British Sugar.
Rumour and uncertainty have been rife this week, as British Sugar effectively closed its Newark factory to deliveries from that area because so much proved to be unprocessable.
It is not just Newark growers who have been affected. Growers in all factory areas with unharvested beet are being left with a crop that in many cases is simply not fit to process.
British Sugar cannot be blamed for the weather, and the firm will take a hit in profits, which one city analyst has suggested might reach £20m.
But some growers feel this was an accident waiting to happen. Improvements in harvesting equipment, combined with British Sugar’s rationalisation of its factories and desire to increase efficiency, have moved the campaign end later and later.
A perhaps understandable late start to this year’s campaign to maximise beet growth and sugar content has only exacerbated the situation.
While winters were mild, no one questioned the change in approach, and, unfortunately, it is difficult to turn back time.
The next few weeks are going to be crucial. Every effort has to be made to salvage as much crop as possible and work with growers to find alternative homes in the animal feed market if processing is not possible.
This year’s disaster must be investigated thoroughly. British Sugar’s communication to growers has been woefully inadequate. It needs to re-examine how it passes information to individual growers, contractors and hauliers, and make sure it is fast, clear and open. Too many growers have been left to make decisions in the dark.
It also needs to make a clear statement that it will not penalise those who did not deliver to contract this season, and work closely with growers who, having signed contracts in good faith in the summer, are understandably hesitant about continuing to grow the crop.
The thorny issue of grower compensation is also sure to be raised. Government aid in the current financial climate is unlikely, and it is hard to see British Sugar suddenly acting like a benevolent uncle.
An idea that has been mooted is a grower levy. That’s not going to be without its detractors – profitability for growers is tight enough already. The only possible way it could work is if British Sugar agrees to match fund growers’ contributions.
Much has been made in recent times that the relationship between growers and processors is a partnership. British Sugar needs to prove now, more than ever, that it has a true partnership with growers by providing the information and support its growers desperately need. Otherwise, British Sugar will be left to grow the crop on its own.
Farmers Weekly deputy arable editor