Sugar firm predicts bumper harvest for beet farmers

British Sugar is gearing up for what could be a record sugar beet harvest, with processing due to begin at the company’s four factories in little more than a week.

The campaign starts at Newark, Nottinghamshire, and Wissington, Norfolk, on Friday, 12 September, followed by Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, (15 September) and Cantley, Norfolk, (17 September). About 7.5m tonnes of beet delivered from 3,600 growers will be processed over the next five months.

British Sugar agriculture director Colm McKay said: “We announced the factory opening dates as early as possible so growers could plan their harvesting schedules in good time. The prospects for the crop look good and we are looking forward to a successful campaign.”

Most growers will easily surpass what was until recently seen as an ambitious target of 70t/ha set by British Sugar following reform of the sugar sector in 2005, with an increasing number of farmers achieving record yields in excess of 100t/ha on the best land.

An estimated 3m tonnes of beet will be processed at Wissington – the company’s flagship factory near Downham Market, Norfolk. Factory manager Paul Hitchcock told Farmers Weekly: “We expect to process a relatively large crop this year. It looks big and green.”

“The sharp price cut recently agreed for the 2015 sugar beet crop refocuses the need to construct a [price] agreement based on a true partnership between processor and grower if the industry is to prosper.”
Charles Whitaker, Brown & Co

While yields for many other arable crops have remained static for almost a generation, sugar beet output has risen from less than 70t/ha to more than 90t/ha in the decade to 2013. Wheat yields, on the other hand, have largely plateaued for the past 20 years.

Richard Robinson, trials and research manager at sugar beet breeder SesVanderHave, said growers should aim to keep crops clean to make the most of this year’s high yields. “The contract price for the crop in the ground is good, so it is worth investing in to keep crops clean with good leaf.”

Mr Robinson added: “Recent rain across most of the beet-growing region has benefited crops. Although there is a bit of mildew occurring in a few places, most growers applied fungicide treatments in good time and have kept disease in check.”

Bumper yields and a beet price of £31.67/t – the highest for a decade – could see record returns on many farms. But the future is more challenging with a 24% price reduction already confirmed for next year and the abolition of sugar quotas looming in 2017.

Charles Whitaker, managing partner at farm business consultants Brown & Co, said: “The 2014 crop looks as though it may be a record one in terms of yield, which could produce the largest yield times price return to growers that we have seen since 2004.”

But he added: “The sharp price cut recently agreed for the 2015 sugar beet crop refocuses the need to construct a [price] agreement based on a true partnership between processor and grower if the industry is to prosper.”

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