Beet generation ‘is moving on’

Farmer JACK WEBBER, 83, of Copdoes Farm, Whelnetham, near Bury St Edmunds, offers a personal history of sugar beet farming in East Anglia and his own views on today’s pricing structures.

I HAVE been growing sugar beet on my own for 60 years and before that, I helped my father for 15 years. Therefore, I believe I know something about the crop.

My father had 100 acres of sandyland at Cow Ground Farm, Kenny Hill, near Mildenhall, Suffolk. Father chopped out during the day when the crop was drilled with natural seed and, as children, when we came home from school, we had to single them at night, often on our hands and knees. As the crop grew, we had to pull fat hen weeds and carry them to the headland.

The beet were pulled in rows of eight, places were cleaned every four yards, topped, forked into a horse-drawn cart and taken to the roadside. It was then forked off to remove more dirt; every leaf had to be taken off by hand and the tops were spread evenly with two tined forks and then ploughed back in.

In 1943, we moved to Hill Farm, Stanton, Bury St Edmunds, still growing sugar beet. I used to lift the beet with two horses called Depper and Boxer and a ‘Howard’ lifter. It was heavy land. The sugar beet were then chopped out and singled a tthe same time. They were then harvested in the same way. When there was a hard frost, we covered them up with the remaining tops. The sugar beet tops proved good for the land.

I became a tenant of 50 acres of land at Felsham in October 1954. In 1955, I grew 10 acres of beet and harvested 22 acres which my father had when he sold Hill Farm. I bought a ‘Catchpole Dumper Harvester’ and an old ex-WD Bedford lorry; my neighbour then had 10 acres of beet and he said that if I would help him with his harvest, he would help me. I often loaded 7.5 tonnes of beet on my own at night with a tilley lamp.

In 1959, I purchased Grange Farm, Dullingham, and had to load the sugar beet onto railway trucks with a potato elevator. The first three factory returns showed a dirt content of 48%, 50% and 51%. I then bought a ‘Guyco’ sledge in 1960. It was a very wet autumn. My next purchase was a ‘Catchpole Cadet’ side elevator and I still have this piece of machinery on my current farm. Then a ‘Standen Solo’ was replaced by a ‘Cyclone’. I subsequently invested in a ‘Vicon’, followed by a ‘Ransome Hunter’ two row; later a six row ‘Matro’ and thereafter another six row ‘Matro’ - now worse for wear!

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The future for me is to have contractors with large tanker machines with a gross weight, when loaded, of 40 tonnes. The land which I currently farm at Great Whelnetham and Bradfield St George near Bury St Edmudns has been piped and mole-drained and the compaction significantly reduces the yield of the following crop. Last year, 40 acres of spring barley, after wheat, yielded 2.5 tonnes per acre. In the same year, spring barley grown after sugar beet yielded just 1.5 tonnes per acre.

About 12 years ago, a lorryload of beet was worth �1,000 at 19% sugar. This year, the figure is just �750. I would like to continue to grow beet, but cannot justify this at below a price of �30 per tonne. My neighbour said to me: ‘You can’t give up growing beet.’ - but we shall see! My quota last year was 6,120 tonnes. I am still a county council smallholder at heart and will be sorry to have to give up this crop, but I feel very strongly that I must make a point to British Sugar. In my opinion, the compaction of the land, the effect on the soil structure and reduced yields from the following crops should not be under-estimated.

Given the increased cost of fertiliser, spray and fuel, together with the impact on the soil structure caused by the size and weight of modern harvesting machinery, I strongly contend that British Sugar must accept that their pricing structure has to be addressed as a matter of urgency to prevent more farmers, who feel like I do, from pulling out of growing sugar beet altogether,