East Anglia: Stand firm ‘or be picked off one by one’, NFU warns sugar beet growers

The row over sugar beet prices continues

The row over sugar beet prices continues - Credit: Matthew Usher

Only “a few” sugar beet growers believe the price they are being offered for their crop is enough, farmers’ leaders said this week as they urged farmers to stand united in rejecting the current offer.

Sugar beet growers, many of whom are based in East Anglia, are locked in a bitter battle with British Sugar over next year’s prices, with each side so far refusing to back down.

British Sugar wrote to growers last month asking them to sign up to a £30.67 a tonne contract, despite it being rejected by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) negotiating on growers’ behalf.

The move cause furore in the NFU, which claimed the unilateral letter to growers went against an agreement between the parties, while the sugar firm said it was only complying with the Inter-professional Agreement (IPA) to issue contract offer documents to growers by June 30.

This week, Robert Law, vice-chairman of NFU Sugar, wrote to growers warning them that if they allowed British Sugar to bypass negotiations then it will lead to it unilaterally imposing prices and conditions.

“If growers allow British Sugar to bypass negotiations when it suits them, British Sugar will begin to think there is no need to negotiate at all and that they can just send out contracts to individual growers every year and then pick us off one by one,” he said.

He admitted that some growers were contacting the NFU to say that they are worried, following discussions with area managers, that British Sugar will simply get other people to grow their contract tonnages or that the £3/tonne uplift will be withdrawn if they do not return their contracts by the due date.

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“The deadline of 31 July which has been highlighted in their letter to growers is something British Sugar will use to build pressure on us all to sign, as growers not returning their contracts run the risk of not being offered a contract for 2014 or in the future,” he said.

By yesterday, 1.91million tonnes of beet had been pledged in support of the NFU via its NFU Sugar website.

British Sugar, which needs 7m tonnes a year, said the NFU’s proposed price £35.50/tonne was “not justified and would risk damaging the longer term prospects of our industry”.

“Over the coming days we will no doubt hear that any increase in the price would impact investment in factories or even put another factory at risk,” said Mr Law.

Growers who attended a meeting in Peterborough on June 18 unanimously supported the NFU position, he said.

“The meeting also asked for a way for growers not in attendance to pledge their support. We have put that in place via our website www.nfusugar.com. Since the launch of this facility just a few days ago we have received over 1.25 million tonnes pledged to the support of the NFU.

“British Sugar need over 7 million tonnes of beet annually. If we stand united we can finally push to achieve a fair and reasonable price for our beet, which has been eroded over many years.

“We all need to be aware that this negotiation is about more than deciding whether the 2014/15 price suits your individual farm; it is about whether we as growers are going to allow British Sugar to unilaterally impose prices and conditions on us.”

And he warned that if growers did sign contracts for a price which is not supported by the NFU, it would make further negotiation “all but impossible this year, and a real challenge in future”.

Sugar beet growers are being urged to pledge support via the NFU Sugar website, emailing the beet.growers@nfu.org.uk account, calling the NFU Sugar helpline or by posting details directly.