Farmers were warning it could be the end of the British sugar industry if the processor did not take their concerns seriously
Growers were increasingly concerned about British Sugar’s lack of understanding of the crisis the industry faces following a meeting facilitated by NFU Sugar (March 24).
Over 350 farmers attended a meeting with Peter Watson agriculture director at British Sugar and managing director Paul Kenward, with attendees expressing their anger over the breakdown of the relationship with growers.
Farmers who had grown sugar beet for 5 or 6 generations were dropping the crop or cutting back their area.
And there was a feeling of disappointment after the meeting, with British Sugar seeming to suggest it was just a ‘bad year’ and growers’ feeling they had not offered any solutions.
Many growers were committed to multi-year contracts but those considering not honouring them were told British Sugar would consider legal action.
David Hoyles, a farmer on the Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk border, said in 2020 their yields had fallen to 37t/ha, compared to the five year average of 92t/ha.
He was committed to honouring a multi-year contract but had cut the area in half.
“British Sugar were listening but did not offer any rays of hope,” Mr Hoyles said, adding he was surprised by the lack of ingenuity to offer smarter solutions and incentives.
Mr Hoyles added British Sugar had paid just enough to get the crop grown but that become uneconomical with a few bad seasons.
“The disappointing thing is efficient growers like me at the higher end of yields and a lower carbon footprint are being pushed out of the industry.”
Growers also highlighted the difference between growing beet and other crops, with only one buyer and limited options to spread risk as well as no uplift in price when yields were bad.
Stafford Proctor, in South Lincolnshire, said his family had been growing beet since the 1930s.
He said they had only achieved yields of 45t/ha in 2020, when they needed around 85t/ha just to break even.
He said at the meeting all the growers seemed downbeat and could not see a way forward without a major reset in the pricing structure.
He said: “They said another £1/t would take £8m off their profits. I wanted to say at least you are making a profit.”
He said British Sugar did not seem to grasp the reality of the situation and were putting the whole industry and associated jobs at risk.
Mike Neveson, also growing in South Lincolnshire, added British Sugar were taking growers for granted.
“Unless there is a massive change in the pricing structure there will not be any more beet grown in the UK,” he said.
“They are massively underestimating growers sentiment.”
He would be continuing growing the tonnage on a three year contract, but the area on a one year contract had been dropped, letting out the land for brassicas or growing a second wheat crop.
Jonathan Fowler grows 60ha of sugar beet south of Boston in Lincolnshire.
Mr Fowler said he had not signed a long-term contract but was going to ‘give it another go’.
However he said the risk levels were going up and the return levels going down.
“I think British Sugar have got the picture, but they are in a difficult position about whether they should be compensating growers for last year. Three-year contracts are causing problems because they cannot, in theory offer more money while these contracts are ongoing,” he said.
He said the insurance schemes introduced were just ‘tinkering around the edges’ and they needed to pay a price which reflected the risks they were taking.
“We are on a knife edge as most growers are and it will be the death of the industry if they are not careful.”
Peter Watson, agriculture director at British Sugar said they were pleased to be joined by so many growers after a challenging campaign and would work with his colleagues to reflect on what they heard and see how they could respond to ensure the crop ‘continues to be a valued part of the arable rotation’.
“As we discussed with growers, with only one tenth of the Virus Yellows levels we saw in 2020 predicted for 2021, we are optimistic for the year to come and remain confident in the future of our homegrown beet sugar industry.
“We look forward to working with beet growers and our colleagues across the industry over the 2021/22 season.”