13 December 1996

Delayed start puts beet crop under threat

By Robert Harris

AN UNNECESSARY delay to the start of this seasons sugar beet campaign is putting some of the crop at risk, according to the NFU.

Growers face storing beet for up to two-and-a-half months, and will have to bear the cost of losses, says spokesman Matt Twidale.

British Sugars agricultural director Chris Carter maintains that factory opening was delayed mainly because crop prospects were mediocre at the time. But Mr Twidale believes BS had plenty of warning the crop was improving.

2% rise in sugar

"Over a week in mid-September, digs showed a 2% rise in sugar content. That took the crop from what was being called a low five-year average to one considerably above it."

The NFU urged BS to open earlier. In fact, the date was brought forward by just two days, he says. "British Sugar doesnt normally get it wrong. I have heard that three factory managers said they would have opened early if it had not been for the early delivery bonus. If thats the reason Im not very happy – it puts the whole crop in jeopardy for the sake of a few pennies."

It could mean the campaign extends to the beginning of March, two weeks later than usual, says Mr Twidale. Although factories are going flat out to process the crop, they still have more than half to slice, he points out.

"I have been getting calls from all over the country from growers who have had their permits removed. BS has obviously over-allocated, probably due to the very high sugars. I and many others will be storing some beet for two-and-a-half months. Its very good beet, but it is going to deteriorate. I will have to bear the cost."

Others on light land with insufficient storage will have to leave the crop in the ground, he adds. "Many growers havent got the facilities to store half their beet."

Mr Carter admits British Sugar was caught out by record growth in the UK crop during September and October. It quickly revised crop prospects to extremely good.

But he maintains an end of February finish is still on the cards. "Just over 40% of the crop was processed by the end of last week. That means we shall reach the halfway house by mid-December.

"Factory opening was later since the crop then was not as good as normal. No one could have foreseen what was going to happen. Growth in September and October was double the normal average – weve never seen growth rates like it." The opening date was quite late as a result, he admits.

Ground conditions

Although early delivery bonuses do have a bearing on factory opening dates, the main drivers are crop size and ground conditions, he adds. "Soils were so hard that many growers could not have harvested without huge losses."

Factories in the west are expected to close at the beginning of February – those in the east towards the end of the month. "We are spending £0.5m diverting beet so all the eastern factories have approximately the same end date," says Mr Carter.

Although some growers have movement permits dated the second or third week of March, beet will be moved well before then.

"That is just a way of allocating permits over time. It happens every year, but it doesnt mean we go on that long. If the crop forecast goes up a bit, one or two sites may go into March, but only by a day or two."n

Record annual crop growth produced big beet with high sugar contents. The NFU believes that, coupled with delayed factory opening, means British Sugar will struggle to finish slicing the crop by the end of the February.


LONGER BEET SEASON


&#8226 Crop assessed as mediocre – factories opened later.

&#8226 Record late growth – crop revised to extremely good.

&#8226 Later finish to campaign.

&#8226 Beet will deteriorate.