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Farming opinion: Working to meet the sugar beet challenge

PUBLISHED: 06:44 27 October 2018

Simon Smith, NFU Sugar Board vice chairman Picture: RACHEL WARNER/NFU

Simon Smith, NFU Sugar Board vice chairman Picture: RACHEL WARNER/NFU

Rachel Warner/NFU

When I was elected to the role of NFU Sugar vice-chairman, it was foremost in my mind that every grower’s business is different and that, when representing growers, we can only try to achieve what is in the best interests of the majority.

Sugar beet being loaded at 
Cotton near Stowmarket Picture: ANDREW MUTIMERSugar beet being loaded at Cotton near Stowmarket Picture: ANDREW MUTIMER

This year has been more challenging than most. All growers will have felt the effects of the extremes in weather conditions, with a wet spring and a dry summer affecting the yield of the beet crop in the ground.

In addition, in the face of difficult market conditions, this year’s contract negotiations with British Sugar have been particularly long and hard.

With the ending of production quotas in October 2017, EU countries have planted significantly more beet area. Last year, record yields across Europe combined with bumper cane harvests around the world to create a glut of sugar, along with some of the lowest white sugar prices ever seen. Given static demand, processors from across Europe have had to cut prices aggressively to sell sugar.

This meant a significant challenge for the NFU Sugar negotiating team, of which I’m a part, along with Chairman Michael Sly and Head of NFU Sugar James Northern. We were faced with the question: how do we provide real value for UK sugar beet growers over the coming years, while recognising the new realities of global competition and volatility?

Sugar beet harvester hard at work Picture: ALLISON BALAAMSugar beet harvester hard at work Picture: ALLISON BALAAM

With the long-term in mind, we sought to create additional value for growers through a more transparent and simplified contractual arrangement. Central to this is the negotiated removal of crown tare.

This historic change means that, for all future contracts, growers will be paid for every gram of sugar they deliver to the factory. In addition, from 2021 the move to a linear sugar scale will lead to a simpler calculation that is fairer across the grower base.

Finally, all new calculations for transport allowance will measure the distance from the centre of field to the factory weighbridge, ensuring that the full distance required to deliver beet is accounted for in mileage payments.

I freely acknowledge that these contractual changes don’t take away from the reality that the price offered to growers is the lowest seen for some time and that this low price may lead to some growers choosing not to grow sugar beet this year.

Another issue that will make it difficult for sugar beet to compete against other crops on some farms is the ban on neonicotinoids.

We worked very closely with British Sugar and the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO) to put in a strong case to Defra for an emergency use authorisation for the use of neonicotinoids on the 2019 crop. Understandably, we were disappointed by the UK Government’s decision to reject our application.

There are serious concerns within the industry that there is no viable solution currently available to protect the crop from the threat of virus yellows disease. The potential yield loss is significant if virus transmission is not controlled. It can vary substantially but in the event of an outbreak BBRO estimates average losses at 30 to 40% of the crop.

I strongly recommend that growers refer to the BBRO website to fully understand the risks to yields and the limited management options available to protect the crop from virus yellows before returning their contracts.

I would like to finish on a positive note and highlight to growers that NFU Sugar is currently looking for growers on the NFU Sugar board.

Personally, I have found that, even though the role is challenging, I have learnt so much about the industry from taking part and this has been invaluable in my own business.

If you could like to find out more please refer to the NFU Sugar website. The deadline for applications is 12 November.

• Simon Smith is a Cambridgeshire farmer who produces and hauls sugar beet across 1200 hectares of land across Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk.

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