Growers feel sugar beet pain – again

Sugar beet growers are contemplating the second season out of three during which harvesting the crop has been a battle against the weather.

Damage to soil structure has been even worse this time than two years ago, when thousands of acres of roots were not fit for processing and rotted in the land after suffering frost damage.

This winter, the sharpest frosts occurred when there was still leaf to protect the roots and several inches of snow helped insulate them from the worst of the cold. This time, however, the soil has been so saturated by excessive rain that heavy machines and big trailers running across it have caused havoc to the soil.

Actual root losses have been limited to those areas of land that powerful harvesters were unable to reach (or got stuck trying). But how long it will take for the deeply rutted slurry we used to call soil to regain its structure and be productive again is anyone’s guess.

Following the frost disaster and losses of two years ago, British Sugar and the NFU put together an insurance scheme to compensate growers who, because of extreme weather, were unable to harvest their crop, which is some comfort. But it won’t pay out for soil damage that reduces the yields of subsequent crops for perhaps two or three years. So serious has this damage been that a significant number of growers are threatening to stop growing sugar beet immediately, despite signing a contract last autumn to do so. They reason they could lose more by continuing to punish their land than any compensation that might be demanded by British Sugar.

Many more are saying they will plant a reduced acreage this year to comply with their obligations, but will not grow again next year.

British Sugar, whose published results show it to be one of the best earners within the Associated British Foods portfolio, point out that on average sugar beet produces gross margins that are as competitive, if not better, as those of alternative crops. But they conveniently leave out of their calculations the loss of margin on other crops that follow in the rotation.

Growers, on the other hand, allege that the balance of risk of growing the crop is too heavily weighted in British Sugar’s favour.

They say to maintain its growers and achieve the increased tonnage it says it wants to put through its factories, British Sugar must pay more, shorten the harvesting campaign and improve factory reliability.

To be fair, the price paid for roots has, in recent years, been tied to the value of wheat and this has brought higher returns for growers. But returns to farmers are still well below those paid in some other EU countries where processing facilities are co-operatively owned by those who grow the roots.

British Sugar bosses are said to be aware of the vulnerability of their position. After all, without growers they don’t have a business. It may be, therefore, that the processor will make some gesture towards growers in recognition of the difficulties experienced during this campaign. It will need to be significant given the mood of growers at present.

Meanwhile, despite EU support for the continuation of the sugar regime, Owen Paterson – the new boss at DEFRA – wants to scrap it.

These are unsettling times for beet growers. We must hope more unsuitable weather in the future doesn’t make the situation even worse.

David Richardson farms about 400ha of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

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