Need for innovation is crystal clear

A SPOONFUL of sugar is a good start for a lyric in a well known song, but for me, like many farmers of today, this spoonful of sugar that you add to your cornflakes or cups of tea is an obsession.

The reward is a crop with no soil and a high percentage of sugar delivered into the processing factory. Many farmers last year due to early severe frost did not achieve this and a million tonnes of sugar beet was lost along with the farmers’ income.

English sugar, this pure white crystal, comes from a root crop “sugar beet” grown mainly in the eastern counties and success or failure is so weather-dependent.

If we go back 45 years, farms had a relatively small area of sugar beet due to the labour intensive nature of the crop. There had been very little work done on precision seeding, so the idea was to plant more seeds than was required then use a hand hoe to chop out all excess plants. The same manual hoeing was used for some of the weed control the rest of the weeds were controlled by a tractor mounted hoe.

Harvesting had got past the hand pulling stage but was still a slow one, row at a time, a process carried out by the farmers’ own machine. Yields of roots and sugar lagged behind our European cousins.

Today, the industry has been driven forward by UK farmers and British Sugar, our partners who process the crop. The UK can know compete with any producer in Europe.

Changes in the last 45 years starts off with the soil farmers having a greater understanding of what happens when you over-cultivate to produce a seedbed - one pass to produce a seedbed is the optimum, although this is not easy to achieve.

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The greatest innovation comes from the seed producers. Modern-day varieties of seed produce more sugar, resist diseases better, and can be pre-germinated already for a quick emergence in the spring. This is all wrapped up in a coating that contains an insecticide to stop pests attacking the young plants and each seed can be accurately placed to a pre-set distance.

A greater understanding of the effect of nitrogen applied to grow a crop and the effect this has on sugar produced has meant the crops of today are grown with less nitrogen.

Weeds are mainly controlled by chemicals, but many of these have been lost to the farmers due to new legislation. In other parts of the world genetically modified sugar beet is being developed to cater for this lack of weed control chemicals.

Harvest at Gibbon Farms is done by contractor with a machine that will lift six rows of the crop at a time and deposit it in a trailer ready to be hauled to the yard for collection by lorry. These machines are capable of lifting well over 500 tonne a day.

British Sugar, the processor, has rationalised over the last few years and has fewer factories but they are super-efficient.

Future developments will, I believe, come from the seed breeders, as we now look for sugar beet capable of growing more consistent crops in drought conditions, a beet that will cope with frost and a beet that can tolerate a non- selective weed killer.

And a final thought - the same sugar beet will be powering your car.