East Anglia: Sugar beet campaign lifts off in glorious weather

This year's beet crop is looking promising.

This year's beet crop is looking promising. - Credit: Archant

A bumper sugar beet harvest could be on the cards in East Anglia, with warm autumn weather potentially helping to optimise sugar levels in the crop as the campaign began this week.

British Sugar, which started slicing at Bury St Edmunds yesterday, and Cantley tomorrow, after making a start at the Newark and Wissington factories the Friday before, said the early signs were good.

Some farmers on heavy land have started the campaign, or harvest, in good conditions. The campaign will continue until around January, with growers on lighter land generally leaving their crop in the soil for longer. Sugar content is important in the crop, and early tests appeared to indicate they were coming in at about 17%, with 16% an important lower baseline for growers to achieve a good price for the crop.

Meanwhile, the crop left out in the field will continue to benefit from the warm, sunny weather which should augment sugar levels.

Colm McKay, agriculture director at British Sugar, said: “The current crop for the 2014/15 campaign has made very good progress with early estimates suggesting that it could be well ahead of that produced last campaign. However, the final outturn will be dependent on the weather conditions we experience from now until campaign end.”

David Scott, who farms at Bedingfield, near Eye, said it was early days, as the sugar beet factories had only just started taking in the crop, but he was hoping for a good crop when he began lifting this week.

“They have made a lot of growth,” he said. “There’s still a long way to go if the weather keeps like this. While we have the sunshine they are still putting on sugar and weight. If it keeps hot like this they’ll put on quite a bit of extra sugar.”

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Because he was on heavy clay land he would be getting the crop up earlier than other growers on lighter land and sacrificing some yield in order to safeguard the soil structure, he said.

“It looks as though we have got a good crop, but we don’t know - it’s early days.”

However, despite the good prospects for the crop this year, Mr Scott said that because of lower sugar beet prices for next year, under a deal struck by the National Farmers’ Union with British Sugar which starts next season, he will be halving his sugar beet growing area from 100 acres to 50 acres. He is also growing a further 30 acres on a contract farm this season.

“We are halving our beet. It’s as a result of the price cut and the risk of soil structure problems that sugar beet has on our heavy land. For the price that’s being offered it’s just too much risk.”

Drinkstone farmer Bill Baker, who is growing 350 acres of the crop, said he will begin lifting this weekend, and continue over about five weeks, to resume again in January. While higher root size generally reduced sugar content, it looked as though root size would be high and early signs were that sugar content was good, he said.

“I think we are probably in for a bumper year,” he said. “Conditions are getting harder. It’s dry. We have not had any rain for a long time. While they are coming out it’s much more abrasive on the machine but on the plus side you don’t do any damage to the soil.”

British Sugar has agreed a price of £24 a tonne for contract beet for the 2015/16 season - 24% below the current price of £31.67 a tonne.

But some farmers were predicting yields which could be 30% higher than normal, said Mr Baker, which will sweeten the pill. “It’s certainly going to be our best crop this year,” he said.

British Sugar is looking for a 20% cut in the crop next year. Some growers have announced they will be growing less as a result of the prices, but with only an 11% reduction in these, growers such as Mr Baker, who want to retain the same growing area, will need to cut it by about 9% next year. A combination of factors have hit sugar beet prices including high stocks, a good crop, falling sales and falling world sugar prices.