Last winter’s disastrous sugar beet harvesting campaign, which led to huge losses by growers (and smaller ones by British Sugar), left the future of the crop in this country finely balanced.
Record-breaking November and December frosts made it impossible to lift beet and the root of the problem was a quirk of nature for which no-one could be blamed. But British Sugar had delayed opening factories at the start of the processing campaign “to allow the crop to bulk up after a dry summer”, it was claimed, although rumours suggested it was really because maintenance work was running late. The rumours gained credence when the Cantley factory broke down as soon as it opened and operated below par for weeks, delaying the campaign still further.
Some growers, already fed up with inadequate prices for beet, saw cereal prices rising towards new highs and decided to reduce their acreage or quit the crop.
Most others, ourselves included, thought we should honour the contracts we had signed last summer and grow the acreage so committed. In doing so, we were well aware of the low price and comparative profit potential of sugar beet and the rising value of alternative break crops, such as oilseed rape. We determined, if this discrepancy continued, that 2011 might be the last time we grew beet.
Against that inauspicious background, early in March on this farm we approached the task of drilling this year’s beet crop. Paradoxically, the severe frosts that had disrupted the harvesting of last year’s roots had created ideal seedbed conditions. The land broke down like velvet in one pass and seeds went in as well as I have ever experienced.
A couple of days later we had 8mm of rain which was just enough to ensure full germination. Little did we realise that would be almost the only significant rainfall for 14 weeks.
Sure enough, the seedlings emerged a few weeks later. By that time spring temperatures had risen and they enjoyed the warmth. Growth was faster than usual and throughout the drought that followed the beet plants shone with health. Then a few days ago the leaves met across the rows – two weeks ahead of the target date of the end of June.
I confess I wondered what was keeping them looking so perky until I heard, the other day, that a farmer a few miles east of here had carefully dug down beside a beet plant to see how deep the root had penetrated in search of moisture. Apparently it had gone down at least a metre and hair roots, invisible to the naked eye, may well have reached even further.
Last week’s rain (we had over an inch over four days and it’s still showery as I write) came just in time to replenish the moisture supply to the roots as they approach maximum demand. And if we get normal rainfalls from now on, sugar beet will be the crop of the year, not least because the rain came too late for cereals.
Which leaves us with a dilemma. Do we stick with sugar beet next year or not? The price will be up about £4/t based on a formula negotiated between British Sugar and the NFU recognising increased costs, the value of wheat and the Euro exchange rate. And British Sugar, aware of grower unrest, has offered other sweeteners to try to hang on to growers.
Are they enough to persuade us sign up for another year? Watch this space.
* What do you think the returns will be like from this year’s sugar beet crop? Have your say at www.fwi.co.uk/forums
David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.