Farmers want to share risks and rewards of producing sugar
PUBLISHED: 15:52 08 January 2020 | UPDATED: 16:21 08 January 2020
Kit Papworth / Chris Hill
Under-pressure farmers need fair rewards for the risks they take to grow beet for the region's sugar factories, says Norfolk's new representative of this staple farming sector.
Kit Papworth, a director of farm contracting business LF Papworth based at Felmingham near North Walsham, has been elected onto the National Farmers' Union's Sugar Board (NFU Sugar) alongside fellow East Anglian growers Alison Lawson and Tom Clarke, who have both served previously on the board.
He said the current sugar beet campaign - hampered by drought in the summer and wet conditions for lifting beet from the fields in the winter - had underlined the challenges of growing the crop.
And this has added to farmers' frustrations during a period when low world sugar prices have driven down the contract prices agreed between NFU Sugar and British Sugar, which operates the four processing factories at Cantley near Acle, Wissington near King's Lynn, Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and Newark in Nottinghamshire.
Mr Papworth said his election to the board extends his family's long association with NFU Sugar and he aims to use his experience to achieve fair returns for farmers, with the financial risks and rewards evenly shared between growers and processors.
"From our perspective we have 15 sugar beet contracts that we help to manage and we know there is a lot of frustration around sugar beet growers," he said. "There are many challenges in growing sugar beet in the UK, and it is not just the price.
"As a grower, you take a big gamble when you put the crop in the ground. In the summer I was taking pictures of my sugar beet laying flat in the field because it had not had any rain, and then we were lifting it in pouring rain because we needed to get beet into the factories. I think this year we have done an enormous amount of damage to soils. It will take years to get over it on the heavier soils.
"British Sugar has invested a lot of money in its factories, but we [growers] are also taking a significant risk and that has got to produce a positive reward. Our industry is very expensive, there are a lot of people employed and there is a huge amount of money tied up in specialist equipment.
"I am very optimistic that our industry can go forward as an efficient producer but there does have to be risk and reward on both sides. It is a partnership. If British Sugar does well, we do well. That is why I am so keen to represent the industry in these discussions."
After the most recent contract negotiations in September, British Sugar said the current prices agreed with NFU Sugar represented "certainty and choice" for growers, with higher rates introduced for three-year contracts and bonus "triggers" allowing growers to share the benefits when the EU sugar market improves.
Mr Papworth will begin a three-year term on the NFU Sugar board in March 2020 along with Alison Lawson, who grows beet in Diss and was first elected to the Sugar Board two years ago, and Tom Clarke, who farms near Ely and was previously co-opted for one-year terms in both 2018 and 2019.
NFU Sugar Board chairman Michael Sly said: "I am delighted to see Alison and Tom continue on the board in 2020, and to welcome Kit at a crucial time for the sugar industry.
"The sector continues to face uncertainty in global markets and the prospect of post-Brexit trade deals, and the challenges of growing a viable and sustainable sugar beet crop, while we are losing important plant protection products. The UK grower base remains well served by a Sugar Board that is passionate and committed to addressing the challenges faced."