Beet campaign gets under way

Colm McKay, agricultural director at British Sugar, holds a sugar beet and a package of Silver Spoon

Colm McKay, agricultural director at British Sugar, holds a sugar beet and a package of Silver Spoon sugar that the factory in Bury St Edmunds produce. - Credit: Su Anderson

Lorryloads of sugar beet began arriving at the British Sugar plant in Bury St Edmunds last Thursday as this year’s campaign, or harvest, gets under way.

The average amount of beet processed in a typical campaign is about 2.2million tonnes, but this year it will be down by about a fifth after the firm contracted 20% less of the crop to enable it to reduce its surplus stocks.

The price of sugar has fallen in recent times, and is now around 400 to 450 euros a tonne, compared to 700 to 750 euros a few years ago.

The commodity is coming under pressure in the run-up to the ending of European Union sugar quotas.

“The expected campaign length is shorter this year – it will run to mid to late January, depending on the yield of the crop this year and the throughput at the factories which, of course, at this stage is unknown,” said British Sugar’s agriculture director, Colm McKay. “The reason it’s shorter is we contracted for 20% less tonnage this year because there are large sugar stocks. In conjunction with our growers, we have agreed to decrease the amount grown this year.”

Wet weather has hit beet growers in the last few weeks, but the campaign started in a welcome spell of sunshine. “Indications are that plenty of our growers are wanting to start harvest,” said Mr McKay.

Two years ago, an exceptionally cold spring affected germination, but better weather later helped crops to recover. Last year produced a record crop.

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“It was the best year we had nationally. This year it’s very difficult to say, but indications are that yields will be broadly in line with the five-year average,” he said.

“We would now benefit from having more sunshine.”

Yields are looking good, he said, but sugar content may be lower because of weather conditions.

“The crop in the Bury areas is looking pretty good and sugar beet will be a good returning crop this year,” he added. The returns on beet were looking good, compared to those for grains, he added.

The EU sugar regime is due to come to an end in 2017.

“A number of sugar producers’ companies across Europe are taking positions in the marketplace to try and get ready for that time. There’s a lot of sugar in stock at this moment. What this is driving is an increasingly competitive marketplace,” he said. “What’s really important working with our growers is we increase the competitiveness of our industry.”

This was already being achieved through high UK yields, with five record crops in the past seven years.