British Sugar has appealed to farmers to grow more sugar beet or face the prospect of having to compete against imported supplies.

Having spent three years driving down the beet price and encouraging growers to quit production, the company now finds itself on the brink of being unable to find enough farmers prepared to grow the crop in 2009.

Beet production for sugar is likely to meet requirements. But an estimated 500,000t shortfall – equivalent to more than 8000ha (20,000 acres) – means bioethanol production has yet to be underpinned at British Sugar’s Wissington plant in Norfolk.

British Sugar is looking to place a limited amount of additional contract tonnage to underpin the company’s bioethanol requirement,” said Robin Limb, the company’s agricultural development manager.

Beet from UK growers was the preferred source, with contract tonnage still available for next year, added Mr Limb. But he warned: “If insufficient beet is grown by UK farmers, British Sugar will import additional supplies to maintain requirements.”

Sugar beet

Reduced production means British Sugar will struggle to meet requirements.

The statement suggests the monopolistic giant may have gone too far in its bid to improve the competitiveness of the UK sugar beet sector by forcing out less efficient growers through a combination of factory closures and lower prices.

Once the mainstay of many arable units, sugar beet is now grown by little more than 5000 farmers compared to more than 8000 in 2002. Beet once worth more than £40/t will be worth just £26/t in 2009.

NFU sugar board chairman William Martin said: “This is symptomatic of the new world we are in. British Sugar has to take a view of how much money it needs to pay farmers to get enough beet grown.”

Falling cereal prices and healthier beet yields this autumn could yet renew confidence in the crop. Spring barley is looking less attractive and farmers who had initially decided not to grow beet in 2009 may now return.

With about 70% of the crop still in the ground and growing, some April-drilled beet lifted earlier this month has already exceeded 70t/ha (28t/acre), with sugar levels averaging 18.15% and rising for the week ending 26 October.

“A number of growers who cancelled their contracts have now come back to us,” said Mr Limb. “Many others have taken additional tonnage for next year which is basically free to anyone who wants it.”