East Anglia: Beet growers need a clear voice, says NFU leader

Beet farmers must be allowed to negotiate collectively with a single monopoly buyer, leading grower William Martin told industry guests at a centenary celebration at the sugar beet factory at Cantley.

In a brief address to about 50 guests to mark the 100th anniversary of the factory, Mr Martin, chairman of the National Farmers’ Union’s sugar board, said that his 3,500 growers must be able to speak with a single voice.

“What gives us collectively the ability to work together is the fact we have a very strong tradition in this country of all growers of sugar beet being represented by that single body, the NFU.

“Part of what makes our industry as successful as it is is that growers do speak with a single voice. British Sugar on their side and the NFU are able to think, act and plan collectively for the industry and for its future.

“We’re only able to do that because sugar beet growers are granted an exemption from the EU competition policy which enables us to speak with one voice. That exemption from competition policy is currently under threat from Brussels. To me that poses an enormous risk going forward because growers will not be able to speak with a single voice any more,” said Mr Martin, who farms at Littleport, near Ely.

“We have in this industry an example of how the agricultural supply chain can, and should, work at its best, growers co-operating and working together and working in partnership with their customer, British Sugar, to deliver the best possible industry for both parties, both now and for the future,” he added.

He said the investment in research and development had enabled more growers to achieve yields of 100 tonnes per hectare, which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. “It is a demonstration of the progress we have made. A feature of our industry compared to some other sectors of agriculture is the consistency we have continued to invest in our research and development for the future,” he said.

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Earlier Gino de Jaegher, British Sugar’s managing director, said that through the British Beet Research Organisation, growers and processor had combined to invest millions of pounds each year to drive the yield of the crop up – more than tripling the yield since 1912 from 25 tonnes per ha to 75.6t last year.

He said that British Sugar was also striving to become even more efficient. Training was important too, he said. Over the past 10 years, the company has invested in training of more than 100 graduates and 90 apprenticeships.

“We strongly believe that British Sugar and sugar beet growing in the UK has strong roots and has a sustainable future.”