1 March 2002


Sick as a parrot? You

can change the

expression to sick as

a sugar beet grower

at the moment

AN unfortunate combination of circumstances have conspired to make many sugar beet growers as sick as parrots. To begin with last years spring drilling was delayed by wet weather. Ideally, the seeds should be in the ground between mid-March and early April. Last year it was May before many growers could get on the land. That shortened the growing season and prospects for economic yields.

It was a bad start to what was to turn out to be a bad year. For many growers, who had significantly exceeded their quota entitlement in previous seasons, and been paid the unsubsidised world price for those excess beet, had cut back their area to grow other crops they hoped would leave more profit than C sugar. However, the contract with British Sugar says growers must deliver to factories at least their full A and B quota tonnage over a three-year rolling average or lose entitlement to part of it. Even as long ago as last summer, therefore, some were wondering if they were vulnerable to a quota cut.

During the summer, plant health inspectors found dozens more cases of soil-borne rhizomania, or sugar beet mad root disease. The fields were identified and quarantined by plant health authorities, as usual, and banned from growing sugar beet again. But DEFRAs people took another look at the situation later and decided there was little point in trying to stop the spread of a disease which they judged now to be endemic in this country. Never mind that there is so far only one sugar beet variety that is sufficiently tolerant of the disease to grow an economic yield. The DEFRA authorities, much to the displeasure of many growers, advised the EU to let protected zone status go and growers will now have to live with it.

Meanwhile, the decision had already been taken by British Sugar to close more factories – at Bardney and Ipswich, and after the current campaign, at Kidderminster. That leaves nine plants to deal with the national crop. Dont worry, said British Sugar, the others have all been upgraded and will have no problems processing all the roots you can grow. In any case we (British Sugar) have to reduce the number of factories to ensure we remain top of the EU processing efficiency league.

But hardly had the processing campaign begun when Wissington factory in the Fens, the flagship factory normally processing around 20% of the national crop, began to have problems. The filtration units began to clog, needed constant cleaning, and for weeks this reduced processing capacity to about half that anticipated. The problem lasted from October until Christmas and there were lesser problems at other factories too. Its not clear whether the faults have been rectified totally even now.

Inevitably this led to truckloads of beet scheduled for Wissington being diverted to other factories. And the knock-on effect was felt all over East Anglia as piles of beet built up in clamps on farms rather than being delivered for slicing. British Sugar was persuaded to bring forward payment for some beet to help the worst delayed growers with their cash-flow. But there were predictable complaints that the very profitable British Sugar should not have closed so many plants and that already hard-pressed growers were once again suffering because of their ongoing economies.

As the chaos continued, British Sugar announced that because of processing problems the campaign would be extended until almost mid-March – in other words until it is time to start drilling this years crops. Partly because of this and the prospect of having clamps of harvested beet on farms, losing sugar content every day, and having to be protected from frost, and partly because of yet another wet autumn making land work difficult and damaging, many growers decided to risk leaving some beet in the ground until after Christmas. After all, they reasoned, global warming should ensure we didnt get much really cold weather and the soil they grew in should be the best place to store them.

But we had two weeks of severe frost after Christmas and the unharvested roots became frozen through. Since then during the mainly mild and often wet spell some of those roots have deteriorated and begun to rot. On this farm we had 8ha (20 acres) like it although after hand sorting them we did manage to get most of them into the factory, but it was touch and go with some loads. Many others were not so lucky. As I write some growers have substantial areas still in the ground and, having inspected them, British Sugar has said they cannot be processed. Still others have sent loads to the factory only to have them rejected and returned to the farm.

All in all, it is a very bad situation indeed for some and one they can ill afford. For not only will they not be paid for acres of sugar beet expensively grown, they may also lose quota entitlement for future years. And after a year as bad as 2001 for virtually everything farmers produced, that must seem like the last straw. Parrots dont get sicker than those sugar beet growers.

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