A group of Suffolk farmers stands to lose up to £1 million of sugar beet as a disastrous harvest continues to see crops written off.
Some estimates now suggest as much as 1.2m tonnes of this year’s 7m tonne national beet crop could be lost. Unlifted beet across eastern England is deteriorating rapidly in mild and wet conditions following Britain’s coldest December for 100 years.
Farmers are being forced to look on helplessly as their crops rot and turn to mush in the fields. British Sugar says it is accepting as many deliveries as it can, but deteriorated beet remains difficult to process.
James Black, of the Bury Beet Factory Group, said he and his fellow farmers still had some 500ha (1250 acres) of sugar beet left to harvest. “We’ve probably already written off at least 200 acres,” he told Farmers Weekly.
With the crop still in the ground – and little sign of how much will be lifted – it is anyone’s guess what it might eventually yield.
But 500ha would have resulted in more than 35,000 tonnes of beet, had the crop managed to meet British Sugar’s target yield of 70t/ha. This would make it worth about £945,000.
The processing giant would have paid a further £140,000 for the beet to be hauled to its factory at Bury St Edmunds.
Despite the prospect of writing off a big proportion of this year’s harvest – and a substantial sum of money, Mr Black said he would stick with beet.
But he called on British Sugar to open its factories earlier, even though beet would have lower sugar content. It was wrong to expect growers to harvest so late and risk losing crops altogether.
“We all know that growing beet is a risky job,” said Mr Black. “What’s made it worse is the length of the campaign. The factory needs to open in September – it’s no good leaving it until October.
“This year we will have lost more yield through frost – which you get as a result of late campaign – than we would ever have lost by taking a certain amount [of beet] early.”
Growers with heavy land were being unfairly penalised, Mr Black said. “You can’t lift beet off heavy land and put in a crop afterwards, so effectively you have to ensure that it gives you sufficient return for more than one year.”
Rather than maximising its profits at farmers’ expense, British Sugar should reduce the risks faced by growers by opting for an earlier start to the campaign, said Mr Black.
“It is still better to take a lower yield at the front end and get the land turned around and put into something else than it is to wait until the end of March and still not be able to put the land into anything the following year.”
British Sugar declined to comment on the extent of crop losses. In a statement, the company said this year’s weather conditions were exceptional and could not have been foreseen.
It added: “It is widely accepted that the UK’s campaign length improves the competitiveness of the sector, especially when compared to some other European countries which benefit from higher crop yields.”
Looking forward, it was important all parts of the industry worked together to mitigate the risks posed by severe weather on sugar beet in the future.
What do you think about the sugar beet situation? Have your say – and see what others are saying – on our forums.