Beet growers enjoy better returns

A two-year campaign to cut costs and boost income from the county's core crop, sugar beet, has produced startling results for some Norfolk farmers.A pilot group of growers in the county, under the Delta Farming umbrella, has enjoyed an additional £20,000 of income worth at least about £36 an acre.

A two-year campaign to cut costs and boost income from the county's core crop, sugar beet, has produced startling results for some Norfolk farmers.

A pilot group of growers in the county, under the Delta Farming umbrella, has enjoyed an additional £20,000 of income worth at least about £36 an acre.

Andrew Alston, who has just stood down as chairman, said that the group has achieved the results by spreading the harvest activities of about 550 acres of beet across British Sugar's Cantley factory area.

"We have growers in north and east Norfolk, central and even in south Norfolk, so we have been able to spread our lifting to match crop growth and obtain maximum benefit," he added.


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The self-help group started investigating the crop's future from 2006 ahead of the predicted European reforms to the sugar regime.

"We wanted to know what would be the implications if sugar beet was to disappear," said Mr Alston, of White House Farm, Marsham, but who also farms at Catfield, near Stalham.

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The analysis was started in November 2004 by the directors of Delta Farming, which was a group of like-minded arable and livestock farmers established in the heart of Broadland in 1995.

When members revealed their 10-year beet averages to each other, the results were startling. "There was a £500 per hectare difference in income. Obviously, we realised that those able to grow 70t per ha (28.3t an acre) would be fine but a yield of 55t ha was not sustainable," explained Mr Alston, who has just been succeeded as Delta's chairman by farmer Robert McNeil Wilson, of Holt.

"We then realised that for some farmers, cashflow was driving beet to be lifted early regardless of yield. The concept of a beet group began to form," said Mr Alston.

Then in late spring 2005 as discussions took place, a north Norfolk grower with heavier land offered another farmer with light land a £10,000 loan if he could leave the crop in the ground.

"That really made us think about the beet crop," said Mr Alston because it has been pretty good in the past. "We were just drifting which was fine while sugar beet was worth a lot of money.

Now, it has all changed. And last spring, the beet group recruited some "outside" growers.

The key objective for beet was still to obtain the maximum return and improve margins by pooling beet income, he said.

In August last year, a robust legal agreement was drawn up ahead of the campaign's start.

Now, the challenge is to become ever more efficient given that it costs about £1,000 per ha to grow the crop.

"We've got to look at the crop from a business point of view - the compensation is payable anyway. Can you grow sugar beet for £22 per tonne? Most people can't," said Mr Alston.

Surprisingly and much to everyone's delight, the latest beet campaign has been much better than expected.

"We're going to get about £28 per tonne including about £5 or £6 for the sugar beet compensation, so it is not a disaster this year.

The results from the first season have been impressive. All the beet income is pooled, with about 20pc to 25pc paid every month to group members. Growers have been able to reduce their acreage, and thus the cost, of beet grown with the confidence that the total contract tonnage will be achieved.

"By working with other people we can start to cut out some of the inefficiencies. It might only be £1,000 on one farm or £1,500 on another farm but overall it starts to mount up. On some farms, it has been quite a lot.

"It is about the managing the beet, the quota and the deliveries and how the farmer manages the farm is his decision."

"It is making sure that farmers have got money every month, so they are not so concerned when their beet are lifted as long as they are hitting their target and producing the beet at the absolute minimum cost.

"We're looking at a crop in the field, what can we do to get the maximum return from that crop - by increasing yields and reducing costs.

"All we're interested is managing the quota better."

"We can lift beet in a day or a day and a half. The next day, the lorries are in and the beet has gone. It is all part of that process of increasing the yield - by getting faster harvesting and fast delivery. We've seen the benefits of that," said group member John Harrison, of Metton, near Cromer.

"The high sugars come from the field not in the heap. To maintain them, we must get them out of the field and into the factory as quickly as possible," he added.

When the group's first farm was cleared in October, the yield was 24t per ha. Then the second farm achieved 28t per acre and by January, when the last beet was cleared, it yielded more than 30 tonne an acre against a target of 29t," said Mr Alston.

"We want to take this concept forward. We need to mirror the Cantley factory area in terms of our group. We've got a hard core in Broadland and in North Norfolk, one out in Dereham, and one coming in south of Norwich. Some are relatively small growers.

"For this group to work really well, it needs to mirror that factory area, which spreads from Wells to Wymondham and south of Norwich. So, if there are any discrepancies in weather, rainfall or whatever.

"With a centralised quota, we can take the beet from any farm whenever we like. As long we're sorting out

the cash for those farmers," he

added.

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