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Can the sugar beet playing field ever be level for UK farmers after Brexit?

As the 2019 sugar beet processing season kicks off, Robin Limb assesses the current commercial tensions and asks if the playing field can ever be level after Brexit.

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Sugar beet after Brexit: Can the playing field ever be level for British farmers?

Sugar beet remains one of the most valuable and consistent break crops in the arable rotation on many farms in Eastern England.


However, there may be challenges just around the corner when the UK finally exits the EU.


The delayed 2020 contract offer includes some enhancements, which means sugar beet can remain competitive compared to alternative crops, so growers need to consider the realistic alternatives if they plan to give up beet.


It may seem tempting to put everything through the combine in the warmer months of the year, but this may not always be the most practical option.


A number of farmers have already thrown in the towel, especially when faced with granite-like soil conditions this autumn.


The best quick comparison shows that at five-year average yields of 76 tonnes/ha and £21/t, sugar beet at the one-year price should more than wipe its face.


But this will depend on soil type, rotation, and labour availability.


Historic so called ‘hassle factors’ of beet growing still scar the memories of many.


Frost damage, long-term storage, and extended campaigns all have a part to play in weighing up the pros and cons.


The ultimate denominator of profitability will always be attainable yield.

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UK beet yields have out-stripped any other arable crop in terms of productivity growth.


If wheat had kept pace with the historic 50 per cent increase in beet yields over the past 30 years, the average wheat yield would now be 12t/ha – not 8t/ha.


Sugar beet may not seem as appealing as it once was, but non-price factors also need to be considered.


Spring cropping has many advantages in terms of black-grass control and limiting disease carry-over.


The latest varieties offer at least a 1 per cent yield increase per year just by ticking the right box on the seed order form.


The partnership between British Sugar and the NFU has its challenges, but in reality it has worked well for both parties.


Sugar beet has now joined the ranks of other commodity arable crops.


For decades the UK industry has been a protected haven against the vagaries of the world market, but after Brexit life may become a more uncertain.


In reality the world sugar market is a market of last resort. Most of the world’s sugar is traded on multi-lateral or bi-lateral agreements.


The Dutch founder of the UK beet sugar industry, Johannes Van Rossum, initially planned to supply additional sugar beet to the Netherlands, but rapidly realised there was huge potential to create a British home-grown alternative.


From its embryonic beginnings in 1912, by the mid-1920s there were 18 beet factories operating, ranging from Cupar in Fife down to Ipswich in Suffolk, and from Cantley in Norfolk across to Kidderminster in the West Midlands.

Fast forward to today and apart from the direct employment of more than 1,000 workers in British Sugar, a further 9,000 are indirectly involved in the growing, harvesting, and haulage sectors.


Parent company, ABF, beat off the competition to acquire British Sugar in 1990 for the sum of around £900 million.


The 2020 beet contract offers sees growers presented with the option for either a one-year contract, or a three-year deal at an enhanced price.


Also, with the sugar market bonus trigger levels at the lowest level since they were introduced in 2017, the chances of bonus payments being made, in addition to the minimum guaranteed payments, is significantly increased.


The commodity markets appear to have discounted the impact of Brexit – in whatever form it takes – and combinable crop values appear to have stabilised for the time being.


The survival of the UK sugar beet industry will depend on its innate competitiveness, when compared to the rest of the world.

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