Industry leaders are to reopen crisis talks with British Sugar amid a disastrous harvest that continues to leave much of the beet crop rotting in the ground.
Hundreds of frustrated farmers are attending the third of three regional NFU meetings at the Lincolnshire Showground on Thursday (3 February). They have condemned a package of emergency measures unveiled by British Sugar as too little too late.
The processing giant has scrapped penalties for growers who fail to deliver the agreed amount of beet in 2010/11. In a further move, British Sugar has agreed to pay half the seed cost to growers who meet 100% of their contracted tonnage in 2011/2012.
In a bid to salvage what it can from a crop devastated by mild and wet weather following Britain’s coldest December in 100 years, the company is continuing to transport beet between its four factories across eastern England.
But the strategy has failed to impress growers, beet contractors and hauliers. With crops continuing to deteriorate, farmers fear they are being left to shoulder costs expected to top £15m.
NFU sugar board chairman William Martin said many growers felt locked in an unfair partnership with British Sugar – despite a pricing agreement heralded as a new relationship between the union and the processor less than a year ago.
“Farmers don’t have confidence in the new agreement,” said Mr Martin. “We are going to have to come up with a new system with British Sugar in such a way farmers feel the risk is worth running.”
Both sides said they were committed to the pricing arrangement – and neither party wanted to walk away from it. British Sugar agriculture director Colm McKay said the agreement aimed to build mutual confidence by providing growers and the processor with a stable framework.
Mr Martin said he still believed the new agreement could be a good foundation for the sector in future years.
“I will be telling British Sugar that they’ve got a job to do to convince farmers of the value of the new agreement. But I think we can do that – and they can do that.
“Beyond that, I think we can add something on to the agreement to cover the specific problem of risk and long campaigns.
“I don’t think it has to mean tearing the whole thing up.”