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East Anglian farmers braced for new blow as weather and disease woes hit beet yields

PUBLISHED: 17:09 29 October 2020 | UPDATED: 17:53 29 October 2020

John Taylor - pictured holding a healthy sugar beet plant and one with virus yellows - says for the first time in his farming career he is considering the future of beet on his farm  Picture: ANDY TAYLOR

John Taylor - pictured holding a healthy sugar beet plant and one with virus yellows - says for the first time in his farming career he is considering the future of beet on his farm Picture: ANDY TAYLOR

Andy Taylor

A disappointing sugar beet crop looks set to pile on the misery for East Anglian farmers – some of whom are already reeling from their worst cereal harvest in decades.

Sugar beet awaiting collection by the roadside after being harvested  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERSSugar beet awaiting collection by the roadside after being harvested Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

Terrible weather and disease has left at least one Suffolk farmer considering the future of the crop on his farm.

An influx of disease-laden aphids have hit beet crop yields and quality this year - with some crops just edging above the 16% sugar content required and some roots clinging to more dirt when harvested meaning more costs. Higher sugar contents attract a premium at the sugar beet factories in Bury St Edmunds, Wissington, Newark and Cantley – where the crop is processed.

MORE – Furious beet farmers up in arms over sugar imports plans

With the beet harvest – known as the campaign – delayed due to the weather but now under way, British Sugar said it is expecting this year’s yield to be below the five-year average. Virus yellows disease has been a particular headache for farmers this year – with the finger pointed at a ban on neonicotinoids. The pesticide has been linked to losses in bees and other pollinators, but was used to keep aphids at bay on the crop.

A sopping wet winter was followed by a spring with virtually no rain, creating extremely difficult conditions for planting and establishing crops. Recent rains have only added to farmers’ woes as they attempt to harvest their normally resilient beet crops.

Sugar beet awaiting collection by the roadside after being harvested  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERSSugar beet awaiting collection by the roadside after being harvested Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

John Taylor, who farms at Woodbridge, said he had harvested about half of his beet crop with the first of it lifted at the end of September yielding just 60t/ha and with sugars at about 16.5%. He estimated about a fifth of his crop was affected by virus.

“I think we could be 15/20% down on our yields,” he said.

“Our biggest problem with sugar beet this year was the wet autumn and trying to lift beet in a month in which we have received approximately 150mm of rain.

“Harvesting in very wet conditions does damage the soil structure for the following crops and also delays planting them too.”

Peter Watson
, agriculture director at British Sugar  Picture: GARY NAYLORPeter Watson , agriculture director at British Sugar Picture: GARY NAYLOR

Going forward he foresaw a host of problems with the crop, including lower prices, wetter autumns and winters followed by dry springs and summers, the loss of agronochemicals – and a rise in pests and disease.

“This is the first year of my farming career in which I am considering the future of sugar beet on our farm,” he said.

The difficult harvest follows hot on the heels of a tough year for cereals yields on the farm, with wheat yields down from around 9.5t/ha to 8t/ha.

He had found large numbers of aphids in his beet crop. While the last thing he wanted was to use more insecticide than absolutely necessary he argued that neonicotinoids on beet seeds – as opposed to oilseed rape crops – should not harm bee populations as they were non-flowering.

Sugar beet awaiting collection by the roadside after being harvested  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERSSugar beet awaiting collection by the roadside after being harvested Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

Bill Baker, who farms at Drinkstone, near Bury St Edmunds said he had lifted around 75ha of beet over the past three weeks and the results were well below average, mainly due to low sugar contents of between 16% and 17%.

“Damage to fields and difficulty creating seedbeds for the subsequent wheat crop has added to our woes with a significant proportion of the beet area lifted still undrilled,” he added.

Beet which was drilled in mid-March on medium soils had fared better, with the poorest results on heavier clay soils where the seeds could not be planted until later in April and where the crops were holding a lot of dirt when harvested, he said.

“Areas of virus yellows have also contributed to the poorer yields and if we cannot secure a reversal of the neonicotinoid ban and/or a hard winter to kill the aphids then prospects for future years look increasingly bleak too.

Sugar beet awaiting collection by the roadside after being harvested  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERSSugar beet awaiting collection by the roadside after being harvested Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

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“We have relied upon high yields to compensate for lower prices to help maintain respectable gross margins for sugar beet but this year looks likely to be a disappointing one sadly.”

Ben Larter, of Framlingham, described his beet crop year as “a bit of disaster”. He has lifted around 120/130ha of his 200ha of the crop and was averaging around 60/65t/ha where he would normally expect around 80t/ha.

“The yields aren’t what we need to make money out of it and because the factories were late opening as soon as the harvest started it poured with rain – we had about 90mm of rain the first weekend,” he said. With the soggy conditions he has not been able to establish next year’s crop. The rain had also diluted the sugars, bringing them down to about 16/16% compared to about 18% for his first beet to arrive at the factory. Nearly every field had virus yellows, he added, and this had noticeably increased since last year – the first without neonicotinoids.

Sugar beet awaiting collection by the roadside after being harvested  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERSSugar beet awaiting collection by the roadside after being harvested Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

It follows a 25% drop in his wheat yields this year, and a 15% fall in spring barley.

Andrew Blenkiron of the Euston Estate neat Thetford said his crop - not yet harvested – looked “average” at the moment but felt the early summer drought had no doubt had an effect. “We have seen a bit of virus yellows but the crop seems to have grown through it,” he said.

John Collen of Gislesham near Lowestoft said he had lifted about 300 acres of his beet crop which had been “very wet and extremely difficult to harvest”, with the soil “taking a beating”.

Yields were in the low 16% area and yields were “OK”, he added. Luckily he had been able to prepare his seed beds and drill at the right times, narrowly avoiding the bad weather, he said. He had heard reports locally of farmers bringing in 60t/ha so the average on his first field of 73t/ha was “respectable”. After a very poor cereal harvest, it was a relief, but certainly wouldn’t rebalance the finances, he said.

Stephen Rash, of Wortham, near Diss, said he had been hoping to start harvest but that had been delayed because of the weather. “It’s been a particularly difficult year for sugar beet with a dry spring virus yellows and now a very wet autumn,” he said. “We were hoping to do some this week but the weather had gone against us.”

His 40ha crop had been hit “reasonably hard” by virus yellows and he would be “delighted” to achieve an average harvest. “I fear I’m going to be disappointed,” he said.

National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Sugar vice chair Simon Smith said the NFU was continuing to make the case to the UK government of the need to support sugar beet growers, both this year and in the future.

“British sugar beet growers are experiencing unprecedented levels of aphids this year and significant levels of virus yellows disease are now evident across many beet growing areas.

“The combination of 2019/20 weather conditions and a high aphid burden in spring has harmed yield and sugar content, particularly in the Wissington factory area.”

Peter Watson, agriculture director at British Sugar, said all four of the company’s factories were now successfully up and running – but admitted there were challenges this year.

“Recent high rainfall has however hampered harvesting and subsequent deliveries to factories, meaning the factories are running below maximum capacity in the short term,” he said.

“We expect this year’s crop to yield below the five-year average, as a result of a combination of poor weather conditions affecting crop establishment and the impact of unprecedented numbers of aphids, which can carry virus yellows disease.

“We recognise the challenges virus yellows brings to our growers, and continue to work with our partners across the industry to tackle the disease both in the immediate future and the longer term through our virus yellows pathway.”

He thanked growers, harvesting contractors and hauliers for their support during the “challenging” lifting conditions on farm.

MORE - Farmers distraught as harvest yields plummet


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