The NFU is taking legal advice and seeking the intervention of junior DEFRA minister Jeff Rooker to mitigate the effects on growers of next year’s closures of the Allscott and York sugar beet factories.

The shutdowns, to take place at the end of the 2006/07 campaign, were announced by British Sugar last week, (News, 7 July).

They will result in the transfer of almost 2m tonnes of beet processing to the four remaining factories in the east, jeopardising the businesses of over 1800 growers who currently supply Allscott and York.

A producer meeting was organised by the NFU near the Allscott site on Tuesday (11 July) to explain the situation and update growers on what their options might be.

“Feelings were running very high,” said NFU chief sugar beet adviser Helen Kirkman.

“There has been a lot of investment at Allscott and growers have been reassured by British Sugar in the past that it wouldn’t be the first to close. On the back of this, farmers and contractors have invested, too.

“They now feel they have had the rug pulled from under them.”

One such farmer is Mark Blakeway, who grows 81ha (200 acres) of beet near Kidderminster, and chaired the Allscott meeting.
“This is devastating. In the past when a factory has closed we have been able to move our beet to the next one. But now Allscott is going, the nearest is Newark and that is too far away. It could not handle all the beet from Allscott and York anyway,” he told Farmers Weekly.

Contractor Philip Watkins, who lifts about 1000ha (2500 acres) for over 30 growers in Herefordshire, was also at the meeting. “I am gob-smacked, amazed and disheartened. I have three six-row harvesters sitting in my yard that, at the end of this season, won’t be worth very much.”

It was all the more perplexing, as British Sugar had recently invested heavily in a new vertical diffuser at Allscott, he said.

The NFU says it is taking legal advice over the actions of the British Sugar monopoly, and has meetings lined up with DEFRA.

“Under the current agreement, so long as growers deliver their contract tonnage this season, they have to be offered another contract next season,” said Ms Kirkman.

“It is therefore up to British Sugar to pay sufficient transport allowance to get that beet to Newark, or else make provision for buying up that tonnage.”

The NFU has also made clear to growers that the factory closures do not fall within the EU’s restructuring scheme as agreed under last year’s sugar reform, but points out that, if it was, then growers and contractors would be entitled to at least 10% of the 730/t (500/t) available to processors.

A spokesman for British Sugar said the company would be writing to affected growers next week with an update. “We are in discussion with the NFU about the various options, but are waiting for them to come up with more information to support their case.”

philip.clarke@rbi.co.uk