Old ways prove a point in sugar beet crisis

The first sugar beet processing factory was built in this country at Cantley in Norfolk 99 years ago. It was funded by Dutch investors and the first crops were supervised by Dutch farm managers who had first to persuade and then teach local farmers to grow this new crop.

The nearest Norfolk had come to sugar beet before that was turnips, swedes and mangolds. The successors of those Hollanders who crossed the North Sea to establish beet in this country still live in Norfolk and farm in their own right. But I doubt if any of them, or their forebears, ever experienced a campaign like the one that’s staggering to its conclusion.As has been widely reported, many thousands of acres have not been lifted because frost damage was so severe they were rotten and unfit to process. Some have been ploughed back into the soil, others have been lifted and sent to the factory only to be rejected and sent back to the farm where they were grown, creating a disposal problem and more expense. Individually and collectively losses have been catastrophic, not just by growers but also by contractors, hauliers and British Sugar.

Stoics have said, quite accurately, that all have been victims of a freak weather event that was unpredictable. But it is, perhaps, worth examining the circumstances in a little more detail to see what might be done to avoid the same thing happening again, especially since many believe climate change may bring further freak weather, including more November frosts.

The root of the entire problem (forgive the pun) is British Sugar’s desire to be the most efficient sugar processor in Europe. To achieve that and – knowing yields in this country are always going to be lower than in other beet-growing countries, because on average our soils are not as fertile – they have, in recent years, extended the processing season to make maximum use of their factories.

It was a legitimate ambition and, based on the fact that Britain usually has a milder winter than mainland Europe (where sugar beet have to be lifted by the end of November to avoid sharp frosts), was successful for several years. But a succession of mild winters has led to complacency on the part of the processors and the growers on the back of which this processing campaign was actually planned to last well into March.

In my younger days, when winters were colder, we always got our sugar beet out of the ground and clamped by Christmas and covered them against January frosts by the end of which month they would normally have been delivered and processed. Longer campaigns these days have led some growers to delay harvesting until the New Year – and what a sharp lesson they’ve had this time.

The most urgent requirement, therefore, is for British Sugar to invest in greater processing capacity to shorten the processing campaign and for growers to respond by returning to old habits of lifting before the worst of the winter.

As regular readers may remember, we were among the lucky ones who got our whole crop into the factory. I remembered the old saying “If November frosts will carry a duck, the rest of the winter is slush and muck”. So, the moment our crop would lift, Christmas or not, we got the gang to work. All our roots went to the factory with frost in them before mild January allowed them to go rotten. And my old-fashioned ways paid off.

David Richardson farms about 400ha (1000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

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