Could grower groups work over here?

Establishing a UK grower group, similar to those seen in Lower Saxony, has proved more difficult than expected, despite support from British Sugar, NFU and the English Farming and Food Partnership. But Mr Davies is hopeful that one will be in place for 2008.

NFU sugar beet chairman John Hoyles says one or two growers are already in the process of setting up groups, but agrees that there are many issues to overcome. Not least the strong leadership needed. “British Sugar will only allow one manager of a group. That person has to be a dynamic and forward looking character, who will have to overcome a lot of tradition.”

Farmers in East Anglia – app­roached about the idea of forming a growers’ group last autumn – highlighted a number of potential stumbling blocks, including concerns that pooling resources would involve sacrificing their independence and cash flow.

Part of the problem is that members of any grower group would have to encompass a variety of soil types. Otherwise farmers would see their beet lifted at other than the optimum time to maximise yield, or compromise following crops during the longer UK campaign.

Mr Davies believes this is not insurmountable. He acknowledges that growers with earlier-lifted beet get lower yields. But a subsequent wheat crop can be drilled earlier and is, therefore, higher yielding, which would largely offset losses.

“What you lose on the beet yield, you gain on the following wheat yield. It might be in a different financial year, but, overall, it balances out. It isn’t even an issue in Germany because growers there take exactly that view.”

Back in the UK, though, it does remain an issue. So it is likely any UK group would incorporate an adjustment mechanism to compensate farmers for non-optimum lifting. But even so, Mr Davies says groups are worthwhile.

“Getting more tonnage through the harvester is key,” he says. “Cost savings should come from improved efficiency in lifting, loading and delivery and will more than offset any yield losses.”

The group could also put the whole harvesting, lifting and delivery operation out to tender, says Mr Davies. This would put it in a much stronger negotiating position with contractors and hauliers.

Mr Hoyles says 1000 growers have expressed interest in groups, withmeetings planned for this autumn.

Falling beet prices mean such groups will be central in the future, he believes, but buoyant grain prices are slowing progress.