OPINION: Sugar beet growers vote ‘no’

What was the main talking point among farmers at last week’s Royal Norfolk Show?

Genetically modified crops, perhaps, and Owen Paterson’s advocacy of them? Yes, a few mentioned his recent speech at Rothamsted but wondered if the Daily Mail’s subsequent condemnation of what he said might have neutralised official approval of the technology.

The weather, maybe, and the Met Office’s announcement that we may have 10 more wet summers? It was a pretty negative forecast. But it wasn’t what most spent their time discussing.

The drop in grain prices following reports of better growing conditions in America, despite poor prospects across Britain? That too was mentioned as friends compared notes of crop failures on their land.

Or even the CAP reform package still being negotiated while we were at the Show and confirmed as we prepared to leave?

No, top of the list was the price of sugar beet and whether to sign up to grow the crop next year. It should, of course, be remembered that Norfolk has historically grown around a third of the beet in this country and that the date of the Norfolk Show, at the end of June, is a crucial indicator for potential yield.

The leaves of beet plants should meet across the rows by the Show if they are to achieve average yields. This year, some early drillings on light land reached the target. Others, drilled late into cold seed beds, did not, suggesting below average crops come lifting time.

This follows wet lifting conditions causing horrendous damage to soil structures last autumn, damage still obvious today from the acreage of undrilled or failed spring crops following beet. Add to that the fact that some European beet growers are to be paid over £34/t next year and virtually all will receive more than British growers, who have received a revised offer of £30.67 – £3/t more than first bid – and it’s not surprising beet growers are unhappy.

Three hundred and fifty of them representing over 2.8mt of quota turned up at a meeting at Peterborough called by NFU Sugar responding to growers demands. Many deputised for others and it was estimated the assembled company spoke for some 650 growers.

There had been rumblings that many growers were dissatisfied with the job that had been done by the NFU in negotiations with British Sugar, the monopoly processor. But William Martin, NFU Sugar Chairman, pointed out that he and his colleagues had rejected British Sugar’s latest offer and that they were keen to go back for a better deal. He was sick of British growers being bottom of the EU price league while the processor claimed to be the most efficient in the Union.

He revealed that a NFU economist had calculated British Sugar had made an estimated operating profit on beet processed during the 2012/13 campaign of £29.67/t. He reminded the audience that British growers had been paid just £27.53 for each of those tonnes. The processor clearly has room to increase its offer, he concluded.

At the end of the meeting, a few growers said they would stop or reduce growing beet whatever happened. There were plenty of alternative crops and they were fed up with damaging their soils. The rest voted by a virtually unanimous show of hands not to sign a contract to grow in 2014 until NFU Sugar had negotiated a better price.

Their task will not be made easier by the slide in world sugar values because of bumper crops of cane in Brazil.

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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