Beet growers meet British Sugar to resolve price dispute

Beet growers resume negotiations today (Tuesday) with British Sugar in an increasingly bitter dispute on the price for the 2014 crop, said farmers' leader William Martin yesterday.

British Sugar's offer of a beet price of £30.67 tonne – an increase of £3 on last year – was sent to growers last month but was rejected by the National Farmers' Union's sugar board.

Fenland farmer Mr Martin, chairman of the board which represents all 3,500 beet growers, told a much larger attendance than organisers expected that British Sugar could easily afford to pay more.

He told the 254 farmers and growers at the Park Hotel, Diss, that the industry was clearly 'united' in wanting an enhanced price. It had secured pledges of support from growers with more than 5,342,575 tonnes of the national crop of 7.5 million tonnes. After a meeting of 175 growers at Newark last Thursday, it had secured pledges of another 90,000 tonnes.

Mr Martin said that British Sugar had made it quite clear that the July 31 deadline for its offer document for next year's crop was not a complete and final cut-off point. 'There's always been a process beyond that or those that don't return contracts by that date, he added.

Since Broadland farmer Joe Mitchell, of Repps cum Bastwick, proposed at Peterborough last month that growers pledge contract tonnage to the NFU, it has highlighted the strength of feeling on the price dispute.

Mr Martin and his team including vice-chairman Robert Law, and chief sugar adviser, Ruth Digby, were thanked by Broadland grower David Murrell for their 'fantastic efforts.'

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Mr Martin had told growers that if they signed the offer document, they would be accepting British Sugar's price. He reminded the audience, which was a third bigger than expected, that the NFU estimated that British Sugar last year paid growers £27.50 tonne for beet and their profit margin was £29 per tonne of beet.

'The figures demonstrate very satisfactorily there is room in their business to pay what we regard as a satisfactory price for sugar beet in the future. I don't find it easy to imagine them wanting to turn down that opportunity to make that kind of margin for the sake of another small increase on the price of beet.'

Andrew Blenkiron, farm manager of the Duke of Grafton's Euston estate, near Thetford, who had submitted plans a fortnight ago to build an AD (anaerobic digestion) that this year's wind and drought had devastated beet yields. It has surrendered 10pc of leased tonnage because it was not worth growing at the price offered.

Mr Martin said that Britain's beet price was the lowest in the EU and British Sugar was the most efficient in Europe.

'I'd like that efficiency to be on the back of technical excellence not on the back of paying us low beet prices.'

Former NFU county chairman Bob Young, of Hockwold, said: 'I feel that we're at a watershed.'

He added that growers wanted to hear that British Sugar was serious about investing in its factories to make them work so that the campaigns become shorter rather than longer. 'That's has been a bugbear.'