Still time to avoid sugar beet deadlock, says NFU

Friday, 20 August, 1999

By Robert harris

SUGAR beet contract negotiations moved a step closer to arbitration last week.

Both the NFU and British Sugar have applied to the ministry to appoint a determiner.

Neither side is prepared to give enough ground on several contentious issues, notably the issue of payment for sugar in crown tare, and talks are deadlocked.

But there is still time to avoid what is likely to be an expensive and lengthy process, says Matt Twidale, chairman of the NFU sugar beet committee.

“We are ready to talk to British Sugar at any time. I would like to come to a proper and sensible conclusion.

“But after three-and-a-half years of negotiations, still we are nowhere. If we do not get it right this time, five years down the road it is all going to happen again.”

At a series of meetings organised by BS last week to explain its proposals to growers, farmers left the company in no doubt that they were backing the NFU, he adds.

That was despite BSs intention to withdraw all concessions, including the £3m on offer for crown sugar, if talks go to arbitration.

“These are simply threats to dissuade us from going down the arbitration route,” says Mr Twidale. “Growers gave us 100% support.”

Over 1000 farmers attended the series of meetings, says Clive Francis, BS deputy managing director.

“The general consensus was that growers, and the beet committee, thought arbitration could and should be avoided.”

But, while there is scope to make small changes to some of the proposals, it is unlikely that BS can move enough, he adds.

“Even at this late stage you cant rule out the possibility of a settlement. But I wont underestimate the massive gap between us. Realistically, if the other partys aspirations are a million miles away you end up with a third party involved.”

Meanwhile, sugar beet contracts leased under British Sugars new tender system met a keen trade, with available tonnage twelve times over-subscribed.

Releasing the figures this week, BS said 70% of the tonnage offered by growers on rhizomania-affected farms had been assigned to other growers, resulting in a pool price of £13.70/t, slightly higher than the £12/t many observers predicted.
The other 30% remains with growers who placed too high a reserve on their tonnage, says the companys Robin Limb.

“They have the option to secure a private deal by the end of October, or they can continue to grow beet and receive compensation if they then get an outbreak.”

Agricultural director Chris Carter is pleased with the result. “Together with privately agreed transfers, the stewardship scheme will make a significant contribution to avoiding the spread of rhizomania.”

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