'Not worth the risk' - farming family quits sugar beet after 100 years

Tom Wright, whose farming family have stopped growing sugar beet for the first time in 100 years

Tom Wright, whose farming family have stopped growing sugar beet for the first time in more than 100 years - Credit: Jo Sindall

A Norfolk farming family has stopped growing sugar beet for the first time in a century - blaming low prices which no longer outweigh the risks of growing the crop.

Tom Wright is the fifth generation of his family to grow sugar beet at their diverse mixed farm at Moulton St Mary - just four miles from the Cantley sugar factory which it has supplied for more than 100 years.

But this will be the first year since 1912 that there will not be a beet crop within the farm's 350 arable acres, as it will be replaced with oilseed rape or wheat instead.

The British Sugar factory at Cantley, which the Wright family has supplied for more than a century

The British Sugar factory at Cantley, which the Wright family has supplied for more than a century - Credit: James Smith / iWitness24

He said low prices paid by processor British Sugar were the main factor, when set against the risks of increasingly volatile weather, the banning of protective herbicides and pesticides, and the potential damage caused by heavy harvesting machines on wet soils.

All of those issues were illustrated in a terrible 2020/21 season in which yields were ravaged by virus yellows disease carried by aphids, and the driest May on record affected the crop’s establishment before heavy rain caused harvesting difficulties in the winter.

British Sugar said it had introduced an enhanced financial package to support its growers, and remained confident in the future of the homegrown sugar industry "which in normal years has world-leading field yields, factory efficiencies and market positions".

Mr Wright said: "The price paid these days is not enough to give us any profit. It is an expensive crop to grow, but the margins are so tight it is not worth the risk.

"Sugar beet has worked very well for the majority of 100-odd years and it has been a staple crop for the area. So the decision is not taken lightly. 

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"It will be nice to think that at some point we could grow it again, but it won't happen without British Sugar recognising that the price needs to increase massively. 

"Sugar beet is a skilled crop, but we are not rewarded for having that specialised gear and knowledge, with a century of growing it and skills passed down from generation to generation. It is sad to see that lost."

Sam Wright was the first generation of his family to grow sugar beet at Moulton St Mary

Sam Wright was the first generation of his family to grow sugar beet at Moulton St Mary. He is Tom Wright's great-great-grandfather - Credit: Wright family

Mr Wright said the last year had been a "trigger point" for many other beet growers, with some considering reducing their acreage or giving up completely.

Among them are Robert Hambidge, who farms at Pudding Norton near Fakenham. He said his sugar beet crop will struggle to break even this year, so when his contract expires he will be considering other options including using Countryside Stewardship funding to plant flower-rich fields for birds and pollinators.

"It would be terrible if we lose sugar beet, but I have got to make money," he said. 

"If I can earn £550 (per hectare) from a bumblebee mix, with no risk, and I am not going to trash my land and it will not tie up an enormous amount of money on variable costs and run the risk of it all going wrong... what am I going to do?

"I'm sorry but if I crunch the numbers and push comes to shove, then I won't be growing beet."

Peter Watson is the agriculture director of British Sugar. Picture: Gary Naylor

Peter Watson is the agriculture director of British Sugar - Credit: Gary Naylor

Peter Watson, British Sugar’s agriculture director, thanked growers for their “considerable effort” during a uniquely challenging campaign, during which factory production had been slowed down to allow more time for beet deliveries. 

"We recognise growers’ real concerns and have put in place a range of measures to help support them in growing the crop, including an enhanced support package with a guaranteed minimum market-linked bonus," he said. "We have also funded a £12m Virus Yellows Assurance Fund, in place over the next three years.

"We are implementing in-field solutions for cercospora (a fungal plant disease) this season, and we continue to work with our industry partners on the long-term solutions we all want to see to tackle virus yellows, including virus-tolerant varieties, seed technology and stewardship measures.

"We respect every grower’s decision on what they grow, but we remain confident in the future of our homegrown beet sugar industry, which in normal years has world-leading field yields, factory efficiencies and market positions."

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