Big cracks are appearing in the relationship between beet growers and British Sugar after complaints about a low contract price and poor processing conditions at their four plants.
Speaking at the NFU conference in Birmingham this week, producers threatened to withdraw from growing the crop or switch to suppling renewable anaerobic digester schemes if the situation does not improve.
One grower said in more than 10 years of growing sugar beet, she had never known relationships in the sector to be so fragile and another urged the Groceries Code Adjudicator to look at British Sugar’s monopoly.
William Martin, chairman of the NFU’s sugar board, said before Christmas he had too much lifted beet sitting around on farm lorries waiting to go to processing because equipment, filtration and chemical problems at a British Sugar plant created a hold up.
Richard Pike, British Sugar’s managing director, admitted disappointment at his company’s own performance.
“There are areas where we are not as good as we need to be,” he said.
“The weather has been the main problem, but we have had equipment, filtration and other chemical issues as well.”
He added there were big investment plans at its four plants to improve reliability. But Mr Martin said better terms were also required for 2014 to restore grower confidence and ensure it was competitive with other crops.
Joe Mitchell, vice chairman of NFU East Norfolk, asked if the relationship between the NFU sugar board and British Sugar was too cosy.
Mr Pike replied: “We are continuously challenged by the NFU,” he said.
“We meet every month and the sentiment of growers gets out across the table and the temperature is there. It doesn’t feel cosy to me.”
With quotas likely to end between 2017-18, it is important the sector gets into better shape as soon as possible.
Mr Martin added: “We are well placed today and we are as good as anyone in Europe, but not as good as others globally. The French and Dutch drive better yields than us and could out compete us.”
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