Outlook 2021: Tricky times for root crops

The outlook for root crops is looking tricky, with a loss of crop protection actives and coronavirus disrupting supply and demand.

Andersons director Nick Blake looks at the year ahead for root growers.

See also: How the new sugar beet contract shares virus yellows risk

Key points for 2021

  • Covid-19-related supply and demand fluctuations will challenge market
  • Wide range in irrigation costs – calculate these accurately and examine systems
  • Loss of more actives will leave growers having to choose ground more carefully and be on top of store management


The GB potato area looks likely to be the third lowest on record.

Had the effect of Covid-19 become apparent any later in the planting season, it is likely the area would have been closer to average, creating further supply and demand challenges

AHDB figures show a 7.1% drop in area where processing is the intended market, and a rise in packing area of 1.6%, a likely reaction to lack of processing demand at planting.

The quick reaction of processors to the pandemic will have certainly helped underwrite the 2020 crop market, although the season continues to be challenging, says Mr Blake.

Further Covid-19-related impact on the 2020 market remains to be seen, but supply is likely to be more than adequate.

Quality issues are apparent, with wireworm problems seen in a number of packing and processing crops.

The loss of Mocap (ethoprophos) will have exacerbated this, and with no alternative control methods, even more careful future site selection will be required.

Another agronomic challenge for 2021 will be the efficacy of storage regimes to manage sprout control, with the 2020 crop being the first storage season without chlorpropham (CIPC).

Wider use of irrigation has highlighted the growing range in its cost. Increasingly, this is not being recognised where the services are provided, says Mr Blake, advising careful consideration of actual fixed and variable costs of irrigation.

The average charge for – or cost of – irrigation is about £100/ha, including labour, infrastructure, energy and the water itself. The actual cost can vary significantly, depending on:

  • Cost of water – supported or unsupported supply, winter or summer abstraction, reservoir or surface water
  • Type of infrastructure – fully automated pressurised plastic lined reservoir, with hydrants every 72m, versus Internal Drainage Board drains and a diesel pump adjacent to the reel; booms versus rain guns
  • Labour – dedicated irrigation labour employed for the season, versus full-time staff moving irrigators onto other jobs
  • Energy – old diesel pumps versus invertor-driven, energy-efficient electric pumps

Often, many of the above costs have been incurred regardless of the amount of water applied.

Sugar beet

This time last year, sugar appeared to be in a better position than other commodities in the event of a no-deal Brexit. A lack of self-sufficiency in sugar production presented an opportunity for the industry.

Since then, the government has announced a proposed Autonomous Tariff Quota (ATQ) for 260,000t of raw sugar.

This volume would be allowed into the UK market from any source without paying the proposed new UK import tariff of £280/t.

Key points for 2021

  • Tariff-free cane sugar import quota of 260,000t is a threat to UK beet sugar production
  • Growers need to carefully weigh impact of beet and harvest dates on soil, rotation and infrastructure

Depending on how this is implemented, it could mean an increase in cheaper imports, jeopardising the viability of UK sugar production, says Andersons director Jamie Mayhew.

The combination of virus yellows, a difficult spring and late crop establishment means that 2020 yields are likely to disappoint many.

The trade-off between harnessing potential yield from the sugar beet crop and protecting the prospects of the following crop will need to be considered in the context of soil type, rotation, infrastructure, and approach to delivery.

The guaranteed minimum price for the 2021 contracts remains unchanged from the previous year, challenging growers to scrutinise production costs even further.

The headlines of the virus yellow compensation scheme of £12m are eye-catching, more detail is needed so individual growers can understand how they might benefit in 2021.

A pilot scheme allowing growers to allocate up to 10% of their contract tonnage entitlement to a new futures-linked variable price contract is interesting.

This will be conducted through a new trading platform app, supplied by Czarnikow Sugar, and will be available initially to just 100 growers for the 2021 crop.

Farmers Weekly says… 

It has been a tough time for root crops, with the loss of pesticides having a real impact on both potatoes and sugar beet. Unfortunately, there is more pain to come – 2021 is the last season with epoxiconazole and possibly mancozeb.Nick

With sugar beet, the loss of neonicotinoid is proving costly. Some crops being hammered by virus yellows disease, despite being sprayed with aphicides. Yield losses of more than 50% are forcing some growers to consider dropping the crop in 2021. 

The potato sector has been hit hard with withdrawals, including diquat and the sprout suppressant CIPC. The loss of mancozeb will see costs rise for blight fungicide programmes and increases the risk of fungicide resistance.

Richard Allison, Farmers Weekly arable editor

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