OPINION: The end of a great beet research centre

Farmers Weekly doesn’t usually feature obituaries. And the appreciation that follows isn’t for a person but a respected research centre that’s been at the heart of improvements in sugar beet growing for more than 50 years.

Brooms Barn Farm, 192 acres (77ha), and laboratories near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, opened in 1962 to specialise in beet. From the start it was funded by levies on growers and matched by British Sugar on every tonne of roots delivered to factories. Latterly, the £1.7m or so per year this raised, varying annually with the size of the national crop, was topped up by external funding.

At its peak in the early 2000s, the centre employed about 70 people – high calibre scientists, technicians and support staff whose working lives were dedicated to sugar beet. And a ritual became established decreeing that once or twice a week they would have coffee break seminars during which crop observations would be noted and comments made on one another’s work, ensuring cross fertilisation of ideas.

In these discussions on such disciplines as seed germination and plant vigour, weed control, pest management, disease identification and control – including the dreaded rhizomania, factors influencing premature bolting, genetically modified varieties and much more were debated. Solutions would subsequently be found as a result of rigorous experimentation. These evidence-based solutions were applied across the beet acreage, first by Brooms Barn scientists and subsequently by BS area managers. It was integrated research of the kind sugar beet growers needed. It attracted international admiration and was assessed by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) as “excellent”.

But this once thriving research base has been run down. The specialist scientists who built its reputation have gone – some because they reached retirement age, others because they saw their job security disappearing and sought alternatives or set up on their own. They have not been replaced – not at Brooms Barn anyway, which now operates as a farm with a skeleton staff. Meanwhile, many of the experimental records are destined for the skip.

Reasons for this demise are varied and not all are clear. Levy funding, it is said, did not keep up with increasing running costs and the need to invest in updated facilities. Priorities at Rothamsted, in which the ownership of Brooms Barn is vested, changed when research, including some on sugar beet, was taken to the Hertfordshire laboratories from sites off station. Following EU reform of the sugar regime, it may have been perceived that sugar beet became more of a niche crop, such that some thought it no longer justified its own research establishment.

And there were changes in the body that administers the levy. The Sugar Beet Research and Education Committee (SBREC) became the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO) which set up a small office at the Norwich Research Park. Only one of the former Brooms Barn senior scientists was recruited to oversee future research. Twenty-two experiments at different sites across the beet growing area are at present under his control, it is claimed, in addition to those being done at Rothamsted. Some of the Brooms Barn Old Guard sit on committees reviewing this work.

Members of the BBRO I have spoken to claim they are happy with the current state of beet research and that growers and British Sugar are getting good value from the levies they pay.

But I cannot help feeling sad when I remember what we have lost – a centre where every effort was dedicated to the well-being of sugar beet and those who grew it. They don’t make them like that anymore.

RIP, Brooms Barn.

David Richardson farms about 400ha (1000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife Lorna and his son Rob

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