29 June 2001


Very few crops of sugar

beet look as though

they will yield up to

standard, but it looks

as if long-suffering

farmers will be forced

to grin and bear their

financial losses

WHEN you write columns for a few years, try as you might to keep things fresh and different, they can develop a certain predictability. So it is that over recent weeks friends have ribbed me about my repeated reference to the relationship between the growth stage of sugar beet and the Royal Norfolk Show.

"Its a good job theres no Norfolk Show this year because theres no way beet will meet across the rows by the time it should have been held and you wont be able to assess the crop," is typical of the comments made.

For those who may have missed previous references and who dont grow sugar beet, the rule of thumb for judging whether a crop of beet is going to yield up to standard is whether or not the leaves touch one another across rows 20in apart by the end of June.

There is a scientific basis for the rule because it is important that there is complete leaf cover as early as possible to preserve what moisture there is through a possibly hot, dry July. It is also important for the broad leaves of the beet plants to smother weed growth because, by this time, it is not normally possibly to do much about mechanical or chemical control.

Sadly, the leg pulling comments are correct. Very few crops of beet have so far reached the necessary standard, although I did see a few that would come close as I drove through the fens the other day.

For the rest, and that includes ours, leaf cover is a couple of weeks away in even the best of the crop. And wherever the land was flooded or damaged by tractor wheelings or otherwise less than sweet, the plants are still barely beyond seedling stage. As we say in Norfolk they look like "hens and chickens".

Obviously, it is all the result of the wet winter, the late spring, and delayed drilling until several weeks later than optimum. Then, as if adding injury to insult, a few days ago we had a severe hail storm. The poor little plants were battered and bruised and development has been put back another few days while they recover.

At least they are not suffering from drought as seemed possible before the mid-month rains. We had well over 2in over a weekend. The hail came in the middle of it.

It adds up to the fact that we are unlikely to achieve anywhere near average yield. If that is repeated across the country, Britain will fail to fulfil its A and B sugar quota for the first time in years. More to the point, growers like us will fail to fulfil our budgeted income.

And its not just sugar beet that will let us down. Winter cereals are looking pretty sick as well. On the train to London last week, I looked left and right most of the way and saw far too many crops in which you could see a mouse run if one were there. And that at a time when flag leaves should be at their most luxuriant and, tramlines apart, you should not be able to see the ground at all. There were numerous patches all the way to London on both sides of the train where there was no crop at all.

And it may be best not to mention the spring cereals because some of them appeared to be at growth stages normally expected in early May, not late June.

Pundits have predicted the national yield of wheat may be down from 16m tonnes last year to 12m or even 11m tonnes this year. Certainly I would expect yields on this farm to be down by that kind of percentage and, although I understand Scottish crops are looking much better, similar conditions to those which prevail here in East Anglia are fairly general all over the rest of the UK. One way and another, in spite of the modest rise in some commodity values, farm incomes are set to slide even lower this year than last.

Once again, after we thought we had exhausted possibilities, it is necessary to search for any cost savings that can be found as well as exploiting any earning opportunities, whether to do with food production or not. A few years ago we would not have bothered. The odd few thousand on expenses could be absorbed, the possibility of earning a few £s by offering a service or selling something at the gate would have been considered too much trouble. Now such activities can mean the difference between a profit and a loss, success or failure, survival or bankruptcy.

In the jargon it is called diversification. But in reality it would be more accurately described as seeking out every earning possibility, farming or otherwise, including any grants that may be going, and exploiting them to the full.

The sad thing is that in spite of massive efforts by many, a significant proportion of our industry will fail. It isnt fair. But we just have to bite our lip and get on with it – or throw in the towel.

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