Beet growers urge more investment in Norfolk

Saturday, February 2, 2013
10.57 AM

Beet growers are looking to monopoly processor British Sugar to invest in the future of the home-grown industry, said a leading East Anglian producer.

Robert Law, deputy chairman of the National Farmers’ Union’s sugar board and which represents 3,500 growers, said that the processor must invest in refining and storage capacity.

As a grower sending 15,000 tonnes of beet to three factories, Bury St Edmunds; Wissington, near Downham Market, and Newark, he has experienced this campaign’s variable levels of performance.

He was speaking to the EDP ahead of the British Beet Research Organisation’s annual conference at Peterborough on Tuesday when farmers’ leader Peter Kendall and British Sugar’s managing director, Richard Pike, will address delegates.

Mr Law, who is based near Royston, said that until British Sugar had grasped the nettle at the Newark factory and invested, it had been “an industry joke.” Now, Newark, which had struggled to slice 8,500 tonnes each day was slicing 9,200 tonnes.

“The investment clearly made a big difference,” he added.

Mr Law said performance at other factories, and especially at Cantley, has been very disappointing.

With the beet campaign now running into early March, many growers had voiced frustration at British Sugar’s lack of investment plans, said Norfolk farmer David Papworth, chairman of beet reception committee for all four factories.

He said that British Sugar has now issued delivery permits for Cantley until March 4. While the processor has helped some growers by diverting beet from east Norfolk to other factories, it was a fact that all three East Anglia refineries had under-performed. He accepted that it had been a trying campaign and there had been sugar filtration problems, which had added to the difficulties.

At least, the condition of beet left in the ground was holding up and was probably better than tonnages left in clamp and roadside, which were becoming more of a concern.

Mr Law said that British Sugar’s top management has talked about expansion. The new managing director Mr Pike was talking about 1.5 million tonnes of beet. “We all want to be part of a growing industry and seeing it move forward.

“We cannot understand how he is going to process 1.5m tonnes because last year, we had a 1.3m tonne crop and they had to slow the factories down at Christmas and the New Year because they couldn’t cope with the volume of sugar production. They ran out of storage.

“This year we’re looking at 1.15m tonnes or 150,000 tonnes less than last year and they have struggled all this season to process it.

So we’re running an absolutely full-length campaign to process 1.15m tonnes. “We’ve asked British Sugar how the crop will be processed. What are your investment plans? What are your capital expenditure plans?

And we have had no response. “The few projects of capital investment outlined have concentrated more on reducing energy efficiency but nothing on storage,” added Mr Law.

For the last two or three years, the tonnage has been grown and the acreage has increased. “This year we’re in an almost perfect balance because quota is worth nothing to lease. You can buy it for nothing and transfer it for nothing.”

With options to grow other crops, he said that he did not know of any growers looking to expand tonnage in 2014. “I know quite a few growers including some very big ones in Norfolk who are seriously looking to reduce their tonnage.

“There’s a lot more competition for our acres now than two or three years ago. You can sell your oilseed rape crop three years’ forward or maize to an AD (anaerobic digester) plant on a 10-year contract.”

“One very large grower told that when you do the figures oilseed rape knocks sugar beet out of touch.”

He grows about eight different crops. “This last year, sugar was fourth or fifth in the gross margin league and we averaged 79 tonnes per hectare. We’re getting the yields but it is down the league table.

n East Norfolk NFU members have invited Ruth Digby, of the sugar board, to speak on Tuesday, 7.30pm, at Sutton Staithe Hotel, Stalham.