Opinion: Sugar beet growing is losing its sweetness

By the time you read this, I hope our sugar beet will be safely drilled.

Some light land growers took advantage of the false February spring to get their beet seed in the ground. Our land was not quite dry enough then and the soil was too cold, in my judgement.

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Then, just as we were thinking of going, the fine weather broke and it’s been unsettled since.

Once we get a few dry days, however, we’ll be ready to roll. Optimum yields require drilling to be done by the last few days of March or early April.

And it won’t take long because our acreage is about half what it used to be before the EU deregulated sugar.

Sugar beet used to be a key crop in Norfolk rotations, but once production quotas were abandoned and prices relied on world supply and demand, it became much less attractive than it was.

Predictably, unregulated production rose and prices fell. A couple of weeks ago the value of white sugar across the EU had fallen to €314/t (£267/t).

In order to earn a bonus above the pathetic £22.50/t base price paid by British Sugar, the EU price needs to rise to €475/t (£404/t).

British Sugar has admitted it expects about 10% fewer acres to be drilled this spring than in 2018. The processor may be being optimistic.

Last year’s crop followed record yields in 2017 and that will have persuaded some growers to plant less last year in anticipation of a repeat performance. As it happened, 2018 was better than expected because of a long, dry lifting season during which roots put on weight.

But, with no neonicotinoid seed dressing and the likelihood of aphid attack, it would not surprise me if the reduction this year is greater.

Lack of viable alternatives

However, I must concede that one reason why growers may decide to plant beet, knowing it is likely they will lose money unless they can achieve a huge yield, is the lack of viable alternatives.

Futures prices of wheat, barley and oilseed rape have all slumped in recent weeks to the point where they too are unlikely to show a margin unless they produce above-average yields.

And, if you don’t farm Grade 1 or 2 land and have a better-than-normal growing year, the odds on those things happening are slim.

Prices affecting other EU countries

Low sugar prices are, of course, affecting other countries across the EU. Sudzucker, Germany’s biggest sugar beet processor, has announced the closure of six of its smaller factories, although most growers will be able to deliver to others whose capacity is being increased.

France is also said to be rationalising processing capacity, as is Poland. Hopefully such measures will help bring supply and demand back into balance. But it won’t happen quickly.

British Sugar says it intends to keep its four UK factories open. But its boss has admitted the company has lost money in three of the past five seasons.

So how reliable these assurances are can only be guessed at, particularly since it produces far more sugar – beet and cane – outside the UK than here at home (despite the name of the company).

This is what happens when you have to compete on world markets.

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