British Sugar boss hails farmers’ remarkable resilience in testing times

PUBLISHED: 12:24 27 March 2020 | UPDATED: 12:24 27 March 2020

Peter Watson is the agriculture director of 
British Sugar. Picture: Gary Naylor

Peter Watson is the agriculture director of British Sugar. Picture: Gary Naylor


British Sugar’s new agriculture director has thanked East Anglia’s resilient army of sugar beet growers for their “remarkable” efforts to gather their crop during a testing, rain-soaked winter.

Sugar beet harvesting in north Norfolk. Picture: Matthew Usher.Sugar beet harvesting in north Norfolk. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Peter Watson took over the role in the middle of a particularly challenging season beset by prolonged rain and sodden ground which hampered efforts to harvest the region’s staple sugar beet crop.

That prompted the slowing down of processing factories to give rain-delayed farmers more chance to make their deliveries.

The British Sugar factory at Wissington in west Norfolk eventually closed on Sunday night, following the completion of the campaign at Cantley and Bury St Edmunds. The company’s fourth factory at Newark is expected to remain open until April 5, offering the final chance for any remaining beet to be delivered.

Despite all the challenges, Mr Watson estimated that 99pc of the crop will have been harvested by the end of the campaign, with good sugar content and a yield expected to be well above the five-year average of 75 tonnes per hectare.

The British Sugar factory at Cantley has now closed for deliveries after ending its 2019/20 campaign.  Picture: James BassThe British Sugar factory at Cantley has now closed for deliveries after ending its 2019/20 campaign. Picture: James Bass

He said it was a result that proved the resilience of both the crop and its growers, which would stand the industry in good stead as it looked ahead to the challenges of the future.

“I want to give huge thanks to our growers,” he said. “It is very easy to presume you are going to get through it, but I know a huge amount of time and effort has gone into this campaign.

“We have had difficult campaigns before with frost damage and yield impact, and this was one where rainfall was unprecedented and we genuinely have to feel sympathy for the growers, particularly in the Newark area, who have had a deluge of rain and struggled to get their beet in.

“But the resilience shown by our growers overall has been fantastic. Their combined efforts, and the impact of extending campaigns and putting factories on pause, means we will have received 99pc of the beet. That is fairly typical, and it comes down to the resilience of the crop. It is quite remarkable. It has constantly delivered 17pc sugars from week two or three until the end, and we have a really high yield.

Peter Watson is the agriculture director of 
British Sugar. Picture: Gary NaylorPeter Watson is the agriculture director of British Sugar. Picture: Gary Naylor

“We have got more challenges ahead, and this campaign is an example, but it is proved again the resilience of the crop and our growers.”

Mr Watson said he has worked with British Sugar since 1996, originally joining as an engineer before eventually becoming a board member and looking at business development for the parent company ABF.

More recently he has focused on the agricultural operations, including working in Africa, Spain, and China – and he said lessons could be learned from all of them.

“We see changing times, particularly around climate, so there are a lot of answers coming out of Africa on the impact of climate change and rainfall,” he said. “In Spain, we have just-in-time deliveries for beet, which is perhaps one of the things we should think about in the UK.

“But what I should say is that the UK is one of the most productive of the lot. When you compare it to China and Spain, it is streets ahead. One of the things we should be proud of is the yield growth over the years and the adoption of new practices has been superb.”

More immediate challenges include mitigating against the loss of agrochemicals such as neonicotinoids, which were banned due to fears over their impact on bee health, leading to a rise in aphid-borne beet infections such as virus yellows. Mr Watson said British Sugar is working with the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) to seek an emergency authorisations to get control over virus yellows this year.

And a long-term challenge is finding the right pricing structure, in partnership with the NFU sugar board, to ensure the industry is competitive in the post-Brexit trading world, while ensuring growers are rewarded for the risks of growing the crop.

“In terms of price we have had some difficult years in the world of sugar,” said Mr Watson. “The European price has been quite low and it has been tough times for growers and British Sugar. Looking forward we have got the bonus structure now and hopefully we will see some movement on that and hopefully we will see prices in Europe improve.

“Overall we are optimistic about the future. Over the years we have been very good at working with the NFU in a co-operative manner to make sure we improve yields. We also need to get the right contracts driving the right performances with the growers. It is about working together.

“We will have good years and difficult years, but what keeps going through all of this is the resilience of the growers and the resilience of the crop.”

Mr Watson took over the role of agriculture director from Colm McKay, who retired last year after 35 years in the industry.

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