East Anglia: End of sugar beet campaign comes as relief to farmers

Sugar beet at the Bury St Edmunds factory

Sugar beet at the Bury St Edmunds factory

One of the most difficult beet campaigns in recent years has finally ended, a leading grower says.

The last of the season’s beet was sliced at the world’s largest beet sugar factory at Wissington, near Downham Market on March 8.

The end of this campaign comes as a relief, said Robert Hambidge, who is a member of the National Farmers’ Union’s sugar board.

After a record crop produced about 1.3m tonnes of sugar last year, the latest campaign has been trying in the extreme, he added.

British Sugar’s factory at Bury St Edmunds, has ended beet processing this month.

Processing at its Cantley factory, near Acle, has also come to an end.

It has been a testing year for farmers, hauliers, contractors and for factory staff.

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“I don’t think that I’ve known a campaign quite as wet. We had a difficult year about 10 years ago, but this was just wet, wet, wet,” Mr Hambidge

Almost a year ago, Mid-Norfolk farmer Mr Hambidge reflected that he had drilled his beet in February and prospects looked very encouraging. “I was feeling smug. Then it started raining and it didn’t stop,” he said.

“It has been one of those years, I’m glad to see the back of it. It would not have been so bad if we had a record crop, but it has been average, if not slightly below average,” he added.

“I think that many growers have started to realise the cost of growing a bad beet crop given that the industry’s price model, negotiated with British Sugar was based on a yield of about 67 tonnes per hectare.

“If you’ve not grown 67 tonnes, you won’t make money. There will be a lot of people below 60 tonnes this year which is starting to concentrate minds on the real lack of profitability of the crop,” he added.

“At the top end of the chain, British Sugar is making astronomic profits. The good farmers have been making money out of the crop, but the hauliers and beet contractors have not made money and don’t have the funds to invest any more.”

Mr Hambidge used to run a beet harvester, but said that he could not justify an investment of a further £250,000 in a new machine.

He was concerned too about the extent of the damage to soil structure, where beet has been grown. “A lot of beet land has been trashed. It could take two or three years to get it right, if we get the weather,” he added.

Beet growers’ leader William Martin, of Littleport, near Ely, said that recent dry weather had enabled growers to salvage crops on heavy land. “There was some beet on heavy land near Littleport which was lifted last week.

“What we can’t run away from, given the weather in the past 12 months, is that soil conditions are not that good, seed beds are not going to be easy and it is going to be harder to get the crop established and away again,

Mr Hambidge said that contractors especially, had borne the brunt of ever-increasing costs, not least fuel, which were becoming unsustainable.

Mr Martin, who is chairman of the NFU’s sugar board, has made a start and drilled about a third of his beet crop.