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 has interesting 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 ‘fag-packet’ comparison shows that at five-year average yields of 76t/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. UK beet yields have out-stripped any other arable crop in terms of productivity growth. If wheat had kept pace with the historic 50% increase in beet yields over the past 30 years, the average wheat yield would now be 12t/ha – not 8t/ha.
As in the world of politics, this is a time for cool heads and not irrational hearts. Most growers have a crop costing package at their fingertips, and the numbers are all that count at the end of the day. Sugar beet may not seem as sexy as it once was, but non-price factors also need to be considered. Spring cropping has many advantages in terms of blackgrass control and limiting disease carry-over. The latest varieties offer at least a one percent yield increase per annum just by ticking the right box on the seed order form. Not many other crops can compete with that.
As the 2019 processing season kicks off, there is still a buzz of excitement among growers, contractors, and hauliers, while, even though the partnership between British Sugar and the National Farmers Union (akin to a Faustian marriage that they cannot part from) has its challenges, they invariably find middle ground to reach an agreement.
Sugar beet has now joined the ranks of other commodity arable crops. For decades the UK’s beet sugar industry has been a protected haven against the vagaries of the world market but after Brexit life may become a little more uncertain. In principle, the UK has one of the most cost-efficient industries in the world, capable of holding its head up against any foreign competition. But this all depends on a level playing field in the marketplace.
Alas, theirs the rub. There is no level playing field in the global sugar market. While the EU policy makers were effective in helping to jettison the less cost-competitive players in the sugar industry, they simply failed to put in place support measures to level the playing field so that its surviving industry players can compete fairly in the global market place. The fact that couple of sugar companies (Suedzucker and Cristal Union) are to close seven sugar factories is simply an admission of this.
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 over 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 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 beet sugar industry will depend not only on its innate competitiveness, but also adequate safeguards in place to make sure that its sugar market does not become a haven for residual dump exporters conniving their way through bilateral agreements. UK currently produces over one million tonnes sugar while the demand is two million tonnes. While the case for protecting local production is compelling, there will have to be a ceiling on imports to safeguard the industry when new trade agreements are pursued.
Robin Limb, Independent Agricultural Consultant
Tel: +44 (0)1485 535484, firstname.lastname@example.org