David Richardson: We got lucky – others haven’t been so fortunate

Like most sugar beet growers, we still had far too many in the ground when the hardest winter for a hundred years struck at the end of November.

We’d planned to harvest and clamp most before Christmas, anticipating it would be several weeks before we’d be able to deliver them to the factory.

But snow and frost put paid to those good intentions. There was plenty of snow, but it wasn’t deep enough to protect the roots from the sharpest frosts we’ve had in Norfolk for years. And when we’ve had such low temperatures before, it’s been in January or February, when the beet had all been harvested.

In any event, land was frozen solid and it was impossible to lift roots out of it. Even if we’d been able to harvest, we knew, after such frosts, that the beets would rot in the clamp as soon as they thawed, that they’d go mushy and that British Sugar would reject them.

So, there we sat, like every other beet grower, unable to start a salvage operation. It was clear, even then, that roots would only be suitable for processing if they could be delivered with frost in them. And that situation lasted until Christmas, when there was a slight improvement in the weather.

At the same time the Cantley factory, where we send out beets, was running out of roots to process because nobody was able to harvest, and “free loading” was on offer – that is the delivery of loads without the usual strict system of permits.

We resolved to take advantage of the holiday period. We persuaded our harvesting contractor into trying to lift before he thought the land was ready – and yes, we did leave several broken part roots in the ground. But at least it didn’t break his harvester. And we persuaded our haulier to organise extra lorries to deliver the freshly-lifted frozen beets immediately. It was a bit of a blitz and conditions were far from perfect. But over the course of the next few days we got the crop away.

Like I say, we were incredibly lucky. I suspect the frost was a bit less intense here than in some areas, such as Newark, or we couldn’t have done it. And we are deeply indebted to those who interrupted their Christmas and New Year celebrations to make it happen. Most growers have not been as fortunate.

As I write, it’s estimated that about 25% of the national sugar beet crop is still in the ground, much of it rotting a little more each mild day.

Some growers are said to have half – and some much more – of their contract acreage still in the ground, and probably unfit to process.

Every hectare was potentially worth £1500-1800 before the frost. It doesn’t take many hectares at that value before you’re talking real money.

British Sugar fieldsmen are now inspecting each field before any attempt is made to lift it to see if it can be salvaged. Even so, many loads are being rejected by the factories.

I never expected to write this, but I feel almost as sorry for British Sugar as for growers. After a dodgy start to the campaign in places, they’ve been doing their best since. But the entire UK sugar industry has been overtaken by freak weather.

So how many more hectares can be salvaged? What’s the score for next year’s crops that need drilling in six weeks? I’m afraid the jury is still out.

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