Sugar beet area is halved as Irish factories close

Irish Sugar’s belated decision to pull the plug on beet processing in the Republic of Ireland has forced a last-minute change in Ed Jagoe’s spring cropping plans at Ballindeasig, Co Cork.

Originally he had hoped to include 12ha (30 acres) of sugar beet in his rotation, to provide the usual entry to first wheats.

But now that’s not an option.

“We are bitterly disappointed as we were hoping for at least one more year of sugar beet following the reform,” says Mr Jagoe.

“It’s baffling why Greencore (Irish Sugar’s parent company), left it so late to decide on the future of the Mallow plant.

They could have told us months ago.”

The official line from Greencore is that this season’s quota cut made it unviable to run another campaign.

It also blamed the uncertainty it faced in getting enough growers committed to the crop following last year’s closure of its Carlow factory.

But Mr Jagoe is convinced there would have been enough growers willing to plant extra beet to provide the 1.1m tonnes Greencore said it needed.

“Everyone I have spoken to around here has said they would have grown more.”

There is still no word on how much of the €147m (£101m) restructuring fund will be allocated to growers, though Greencore is adamant it is entitled to 90%.

The final decision rests with the minister of agriculture Mary Coughlan, and Mr Jagoe is not anticipating an early announcement.

But even though there will be no beet for sugar processing grown at Ballindeasig this season, Mr Jagoe is still planting some 5.7ha (14 acres).

This will be used for cattle feed next winter, with some of the tops fed to weanlings after lifting.

The rest of the ground that was earmarked for sugar beet has now been put into spring barley and maize.

There is some speculation in the market that the demise of sugar beet will force many tillage farmers into cereals this year, which could put pressure on cereal values post-harvest.

The Irish Farmers’ Association has tried to quash these rumours, pointing out that last year’s harvest was already down by 31,000ha (77,000 acres) due to poor yields and decoupling, with much of the ground put back into grass.

Upward pressure on rents and rising input costs may also restrict cereal plantings, suggesting this year’s cereal area will still be lower than in 2004.

Mr Jagoe buys into some of these arguments, though he doubts that many pure tillage farmers will be putting their beet area into grass due to the uncertainties surrounding beef finishing.

But even if more cereals are grown, demand has been strong this year due to the cold spring and the fact Ireland has ended the milk year under quota.

Longer term Mr Jagoe accepts that he may have to reduce his tillage area, as the rotation really does revolve around sugar beet.

“It’s worth on average an extra 1t/acre on first wheats,” he says.

The obvious alternative is oilseed rape, but that’s not nearly so profitable and is vulnerable to poor harvesting conditions.

The demise of sugar beet could also see Mr Jagoe renting less land in the future.

Currently about half the farmed area is rented.

Apart from sugar beet, the other hot topic in Irish agriculture is the future of milk quota, with government seeking industry views on plans for freeing up the market.

Quota transfers are currently controlled by the co-ops through their annual restructuring pools, which re-allocate quota surrendered by outgoing farmers to certain priority categories at a fixed price.

Indeed, Mr Jagoe’s son Alan has just been granted a further 2045 litres (450 gals) from Dairygold under the father/son partnership scheme they joined two years ago.

But Mr Jagoe is very wary of a free-for-all.

“Yes, I want to see an end to ring-fencing, so quota can move from one co-op region to another.

But I fear a free market will lead to inflated prices, putting quota beyond the reach of ordinary dairy farmers, especially young farmers.

It will also play into the hands of armchair dairy farmers.

“Any system should also be controlled by the co-ops.

We don’t want to see farmer’s money going into the hands of brokers, agents or the auction marts.”

The main priority, he says, is to pay farmers a decent price for their milk by getting more from the market.

With diesel and electricity up about 30% and fertiliser up 15%, dairy farmers desperately need a price rise in the new milk year.