British Sugar bosses are optimistic about larger crop areas, better weather and factory improvements this year after East Anglia's beet growers completed a "difficult" 2022/23 campaign.

The season was beset with problems, from summer heat and drought to pest pressures, frost damage and the premature closure of the Norfolk factory at Cantley after a major structural failure on December 19.

The weather extremes, coupled with a lower growing area, were blamed for sugar production falling to 740,000 tonnes, down about 25pc from the previous year.

More challenges have already surfaced for this year's crop, with farmers now racing to drill their seeds after a wet March, and disease forecasts predicting a virus yellows infection level of 67.5pc - enough to trigger a controversial emergency pesticide authorisation.

Although that rainfall has eased ongoing drought fears, some Norfolk farmers had already made the decision to switch from irrigation-dependant crops like potatoes to less risky sugar beet - a choice also influenced by the 48pc price increase agreed with beet growers last year

Agriculture director Dan Green said the increased growing area demonstrated that British Sugar had helped farmers strike a better balance between risk and reward.

"It was a difficult campaign, following quite a challenging growing season," he said.

"But I want to say thank you to all the growers, harvesting contractors and hauliers because it was a mammoth effort from everybody to lift and deliver a lot of the crop just in time and recover as much as we possibly could.

"I am very optimistic about this season. The crop area has increased by about 13pc for this year - we expect it will be close to 100,000 hectares - so that is really encouraging, off the back of the price increase.

"Providing we have some good weather during the summer, that will hopefully lead to some good crops, some good yields and some good margins for our growers - and will encourage investment in the industry, which is what we want for the long term."

Mr Green also highlighted the success of other risk mitigation measures including the company's frost insurance scheme, which was triggered for the first time in January.

Eastern Daily Press: Sugar beet harvesting in Norfolk - Picture: NewsquestSugar beet harvesting in Norfolk - Picture: Newsquest (Image: Archant 2022)

One prevailing risk is virus yellows, a crop disease carried by infected aphids, which farmers will be able to control this year using banned neonicotinoid seed treatments, following the temporary and strictly-controlled emergency authorisation from Defra.

Mr Green said British Sugar is exploring longer-term solutions, including working with agricultural biotech company Tropic and the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO), both based at Norwich Research Park, looking at precision breeding and gene editing technologies to develop new beet varieties with greater viral tolerance.

And after the end of this winter's processing campaign, work is also planned to rebuild the intake system which feeds the lime kiln at Cantley - following the structural collapse which left British Sugar "thankful that no one was injured".

"We have demolished the area in question, and we have got plans in place to rebuild that whole intake system, so it will be available to refill the kiln in early September," said Mr Green.

"There was an internal investigation to identify the root cause and make sure we learn from that incident, across all our plants, to look for any similar defects that might have occurred. Unfortunately, this was an unforeseen hidden defect that we didn’t pick up prior to the event."

Eastern Daily Press: The British Sugar factory at Cantley closed on December 19 after a 'significant plant failure'The British Sugar factory at Cantley closed on December 19 after a 'significant plant failure' (Image: Archant)

British Sugar says it has invested £300m in factory improvements in the past five years.

And in 2022/23, it is investing £65m on further energy efficiency projects, packaging plant upgrades and fuel switching initiatives.

It is also pursuing a dozen "decarbonisation" projects towards a goal of reducing the firm's carbon footprint by 30pc by 2030, including an ongoing £16m steam and energy reduction project at Wissington in west Norfolk.