As featured in Arable Farming Magazine
by Arable Farming
Tensions in the UK sugar beet sector have been escalating, with many growers preparing to turn their back on generations of family tradition and ditch the ‘uneconomical’ crop.
Farm businesses which have grown sugar beet for five or six generations have indicated they will be dropping the crop or cutting back their area.
Norfolk farmer Tom Wright’s family has been growing beet for five generations but he will be replacing it with oilseed rape.
Mr Wright says: “We have never grown it [oilseed rape] before.
Even a second wheat crop has got a better margin [than sugar beet], fewer risks and leaves soil in good condition.”
Price is the main driver of a move away from sugar beet, with growers highlighting a dramatic fall in prices since 1990 alongside soaring costs.
In addition, growers are facing a diminished plant protection arsenal, with the ban on the use of neonicotinoid seed dressings leading to an increased risk of yield-robbing virus yellows disease.
Risk Lincolnshire grower Andrew Ward says farmers are taking all the risk.
His calculations show growers need yields of 68 tonnes/hectare just to break even.
“The [national] beet area is 10,000 acres down this year. I think there will be more,” he says, adding he is tied into a contract but will stop growing beet when the contract ends unless the price ‘began with a three’.
“It is not a threat, it is fact. We are tired of ruining our soil structure and not being paid for all that effort,” he says.
According to British Sugar agriculture director Peter Watson, a number of factors combined to make the 2020 season ‘exceptional’ in terms of the difficulties growers encountered.
“It has been a truly exceptional sugar beet season, starting with more aphids than ever before surviving a mild winter, followed by heavy rains during February and then the driest May since 1862 affecting the crop’s establishment.
We then saw more heavy rain this winter, causing harvesting difficulties and damage.
It has been a dreadful season and we thank our growers and contractors sincerely for their hard work and considerable effort over the campaign.
“British Sugar has done all it can to help growers recover the whole crop.
We have slowed down, and even paused, production at our factories to give growers more time to deliver their remaining beet.
We will continue to explore flexible approaches to campaign dates and beet deliveries in the future.
“We are relieved that the emergency our crop experienced in 2020 is not likely to be repeated in 2021.
Backed by more than 50 years of data and research, the Rothamsted Virus Yellows forecast predicts only 10% of the virus levels in this year’s crop compared to last, before any controls.
Long-term solutions “We are implementing in-field solutions for cercospora this season and we continue to work with our industry partners on the long-term solutions we all want to see to tackle virus yellows, including virus-tolerant varieties, seed technology and stewardship measures.
“We recognise growers’ real concerns and have put in place a range of measures to help support them in growing the crop, including an enhanced support package with a guaranteed minimum market linked bonus.
“We have also funded a £12 million Virus Yellows Assurance Fund, in place over the next three years.
“We respect every grower’s decision on what they grow, but we remain confident in the future of our home-grown beet sugar industry, which in normal years has world-leading field yields, factory efficiencies and market positions.”
At an online meeting between British Sugar and growers on March 24, facilitated by NFU Sugar, growers further voiced their concerns about the crisis the industry faces.
More than 350 farmers joined the video conference with Mr Watson and British Sugar managing director Paul Kenward, with those attending expressing their anger over the breakdown of the relationship between British Sugar and growers.
And there was a feeling of disappointment after the meeting, with British Sugar appearing to suggest it was just a ‘bad year’ and growers feeling the processor had not offered any solutions.
Contracts Many growers are committed to multi-year contracts but those considering not honouring them were told British Sugar would consider legal action.
Growers speak out
David Hoyles, who farms on the Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk borders, says his 2020 season sugar beet yields fell to 37 tonnes/hectare, compared to a five-year average of 92t/ha.
He is committed to honouring a multi-year contract but has cut his beet area in half.
“British Sugar was listening but did not offer any rays of hope,” Mr Hoyles says, adding he is surprised by the lack of ingenuity to offer smarter solutions and incentives.
British Sugar has paid just enough to get the crop grown but that will become uneconomical with a few bad seasons, he adds.
“The disappointing thing is efficient growers like me at the higher end of yields and a lower carbon footprint are being pushed out of the industry.
” Stafford Proctor, south Lincolnshire, says his family has been growing beet since the 1930s.
He achieved yields of 45t/ ha in 2020 but needs around 85t/ha to break even.
He says growers at the meeting seemed downbeat and could not see a way forward without a major reset of the pricing structure.
“They [British Sugar] said another £1/t would take £8 million off their profits.
I wanted to say at least you are making a profit.
” Mike Neveson, also growing beet in south Lincolnshire, believes British Sugar is taking growers for granted.
“Unless there is a massive change in the pricing structure there will not be any more beet grown in the UK,” he says.
“British Sugar is massively underestimating growers’ sentiment.
” Mr Neveson will be continuing to grow beet on an existing three-year contract, but an area of beet on a one-year contract has been dropped and the land will be rented out for brassicas or a second wheat crop will be grown.
Jonathan Fowler, who grows 60ha of sugar beet south of Boston, Lincolnshire, has not signed a long-term contract but is going to give sugar beet ‘another go’.
However, the risk levels are going up and the return levels are going down, he says.
“I think British Sugar has got the picture, but it is in a difficult position about whether it should be compensating growers for last year.
Three-year contracts are causing problems because they cannot, in theory offer more money while these contracts are ongoing.
” An insurance scheme introduced by British Sugar is just ‘tinkering around the edges’ and the processor needs to pay a price which reflects the risks growers are taking.
“We are on a knife-edge as most growers are and it will be the death of the industry if they are not careful,” Mr Fowler says.