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Farmers' record beet yield brings challenges for sugar factories

Sugar beet is unloaded at the British Sugar factory in Cantley.  Picture: James Bass

Sugar beet is unloaded at the British Sugar factory in Cantley. Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk © 2015

A record sugar beet yield has been celebrated by East Anglian farmers - but the mammoth crop has put hauliers and processors under pressure at the region's sugar factories.

Sugar beet being harvested on the Euston Estate near Thetford. Picture: Sonya DuncanSugar beet being harvested on the Euston Estate near Thetford. Picture: Sonya Duncan

As the 2017/18 campaign draws to an end, British Sugar has reported that although the final figures are yet to be calculated, the field yield will be “significantly higher” than the 2014 record of almost 80t/ha (tonnes per hectare). Growers supplying the factory at Cantley, near Acle, achieved over 90t/ha.

With a total crop area of 107,000ha this year’s total sugar beet haul is expected to be approaching 9m tonnes – which won’t quite be a record total, as a larger acreage was grown in 2014.

The huge crop has been attributed to near-perfect growing conditions throughout the season, allied to continual improvements of beet varieties by the Norwich-based British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO), which has helped drive a 25pc yield increase in the last 10 years.

But the campaign was not without its challenges.

British Sugar's agriculture director Colm McKay.  Picture: James BassBritish Sugar's agriculture director Colm McKay. Picture: James Bass

The severe snows of the Beast from the East at the end of February hampered beet deliveries, particularly at Cantley, which was temporarily closed after it was rendered inaccessible by road.

And, despite £250m invested in factory efficiencies in the last five years, there were also equipment breakdowns and mechanical issues, including boiler problems at the 100-year-old factory at Cantley and malfunctions in the beet cleaning and filtration sections at Wissington, near King’s Lynn.

Colm McKay, agriculture director at British Sugar, said these areas would be investment priorities for the company in the off-season.

“It has been a long campaign and challenging campaign,” he said. “We had to deal with a boiler issue for a while at Cantley, but we came through that. The biggest challenge was the Beast from the East towards the end of the campaign. They were extreme conditions which stopped us being able to supply the factory.

Steam pours from the stack at the Cantley sugar factory. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYSteam pours from the stack at the Cantley sugar factory. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

READ MORE: How Norfolk beet is turned into sugar at British Sugar’s factory at Cantley

“There was also new equipment during the season which created a few commissioning problems and at Wissington there was breakdown in the mud thickener, which is the first part of the process to take the soil off the sugar beet. It is a critical piece of equipment which meant we had to stop the factory for a few days to sort it out.

“There was also a challenge at Wissington around the juice chemistry in the filtration part of the factory which we had to work our way through. There is a major investment going in to tackle that in the off-season. That is our target for the next few months.

“In terms of the field yield, it is a record from our growers, which is a fantastic result, and testament to the great work the BBRO does in putting that technical knowledge into practice. Beet yields have increased over 25pc in the last 10 years, and you couldn’t say that for any other crop.

“So it is a mixed story there but, where we have had challenges in the factories, we are focused on putting them right for the next campaign. We would like to thank our growers for working with us on that.”

READ MORE: Farmers fear tariff-free imports could damage East Anglia’s sugar industry after Brexit

Michael Sly, who farms 1,600 hectares at Thorney, in east Cambridgeshire, and also chairs the National Farmers’ Union’s sugar board, said: “Mother Nature has given us the wonderful bounty of a record yield, which will be between 83.5 and 84t/ha.

“But unfortunately we have to recognise the frustration of the growers with the poor performance at three of the four factories. Bury St Edmunds was the stellar performer, but there have been serious reliability and performance issues at Wissington and Cantley. They [British Sugar] have said to us that they will invest, and I think we have to welcome that intention to make sure they de-bottleneck their plants so they are reliable for the 2018-19 campaign.

“The whole sector needs reliable factories so we can run a smooth supply chain.”

POST-QUOTA SUGAR EXPORTS

The overall sugar production totals for the campaign have yet to be calculated, but earlier in the season British Sugar predicted that close to 1.4m tonnes could be produced in the 2017/18 campaign.

Before the removal of EU sugar quotas in October 2017, this country had only been allowed to produce 1.056m tonnes, enough to satisfy about 60pc of domestic consumption, with the remainder supplied by imported cane and beet sugar from the EU and the rest of the world.

Now the quota regime is ended, excess sugar is being exported this year to countries including Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Kenya and Singapore.

Colm McKay, agriculture director at British Sugar, said: “Under the old quota regime, we were restricted in what we could sell into Europe and to the world market. In years gone by we were forced to store anything in excess of our quota, which was very expensive.

“Now there is a great opportunity for us going forward. We have expanded the business and we are a highly efficient industry, so we should be able to be very successful in the future.”

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