OPINION: Beet grower solidarity reaps benefits

The most notable aspect of last week’s agreement between British Sugar and the NFU Sugar Board on the price of beet next year is the way the majority of growers have stuck together.

For two months beyond the original deadline they have refused to sign contracts. Such solidarity is almost unheard of in my experience of UK farming.

Usually, nervous producers of whatever commodity under discussion, worried about losing what they regard as a vital element of their rotation, will go cap in hand to buyers and undermine any negotiating stance.

For instance, in the old days when I grew vining peas, I became aware of some members of our “co-operative” who offered to grow more to compensate for others who were holding out for a better deal.

This time, however, feelings were so strong that support for what the NFU team was trying to achieve was virtually universal. This support was generated by a series of well-attended meetings at which growers expressed their feelings and the NFU’s negotiating strategy was spelled out. These were followed by emails to growers through the prolonged negotiating period to explain progress – or lack of it – towards reaching an agreement.

Behind it all was the feeling that sugar beet, once one of the key crops on east Anglian farms, had become a drag on profits rather than one of its leaders. As British Sugar have often pointed out, it has always been possible to produce statistics indicating the crop was among the top earners.

But those figures never account for the on-costs to following crops caused by soil structure damage when lifting roots in wet conditions, late ploughing and the like. In recent years such damage, plus actual root losses caused by extreme frosts, have been unacceptable and the yields of following crops seriously reduced. It can take two to three years to get that soil back into good condition by which time the land is due for sugar beet again.

Furthermore, growers became aware that the money paid for beet by processors in other European countries was significantly higher than British Sugar – the only buyer of sugar beet in Britain – was paying here. It was clear too from an analysis of the accounts of Associated British Food (of which British Sugar is a subsidiary) that sugar is a cash cow for the company and that the risks associated with the sugar beet crop were unfairly weighted against the growers.

Finally, and the thing that ultimately confirmed beet growers militancy this time, was the increasing availability of other break crops and even cereals that could be grown more easily and cheaply and sold at higher prices than before. And most of them did not risk ruining a farms soil structure as they were harvested. The two main candidates as alternatives were oilseed rape and maize as a feed stock for anaerobic digesters.

Ultimately, British Sugar, having resisted for a long time, had to concede the facts were against them and have now agreed a price of £31.67/t or £4/t more than had been on the table before these negotiations started. And for those growers faced with keeping their roots until the end of February before delivering them to the factory, there will be a late delivery bonus to bring values up to £35/t.

The result will be welcomed by most growers and have proved what sticking together can achieve. But the relative disadvantages of sugar beet remain and some won’t grow the crop again whatever the price.

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David Richardson farms about 400ha (1000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

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