Sugar beet price shoots up - but not all Suffolk farmers are won over

Farmer Stephen Rash (blue jumper) works on their Wortham farm with his son Tom.

Stephen Rash (right) and son Tom are unmoved by British Sugar's price hike and have no regrets about not growing sugar beet any more - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Farmers have triumphed in a long and bitter row over sugar beet prices — after clinching a far better deal for the crop next year as commodity prices soar.

Growers will see a significant 33% jump in prices in 2022 after the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and British Sugar reached agreement on a one-year contract from 2022.

Sugar beet lying ready to be processed at the Bury St Edmunds sugar factory

Sugar beet growers have welcomed British Sugar's far better crop price - but will they continue to grow it? - Credit: Su Anderson

But it appears a much sweeter £27/tonne deal for next year’s beet harvest compared to £20.30/t this year won’t entice all growers.

Two years of hellish conditions in the fields in 2019 and 2020 haven’t helped.

A number dropped the crop completely from their rotations last year after reaching the end of their tether over a number of issues — from disease and soil damage to logistical problems and low prices.

Stephen Rash was one of them. He has records which show beet has been grown continuously on the family farm at Wortham, near Diss, from at least 1923.

Farmer Stephen Rash (blue jumper) works on their Wortham farm with his son Tom.

Stephen Rash (right) and son Tom are unmoved by British Sugar's price hike and have no regrets about not growing sugar beet any more - Credit: Sonya Duncan

But this year he broke that long tradition after becoming disillusioned over a range of challenges including price — and has no regrets.

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On hearing of next year’s much improved deal, the Rashes were unmoved. Their final beet harvest last year was a disappointing one after the crop was hit by disease and a bad spring — causing yields to fall.

“My son and I stood in the sunshine and said: ‘Don’t care. Not interested,’” he says. “I did the right thing. This is the first season we have not grown sugar beet since 1923 to my certain knowledge.”

This year, the family has turned the farm over totally to combinable crops — which are enjoying very healthy high prices — and hasn’t looked back. It has meant much less hassle, he says.

“Regardless of the price it’s the unquantifiable damage to soil structures with late harvests,” he explains. Other issues including a lack of disease control options, the lateness of the crop, hauling it and knock-on effects for other crops in his rotation were also a factor. “I’m quite content with my decision,” he says.

Meanwhile Andrew Blenkiron, director of Euston Farms, near Thetford, says while he will continue with the crop he won’t be drawn into increasing his cropping area of 350 acres next year — despite cutting it back drastically after a disease disaster.

A poor harvest last year caused him to halve his cropping area this year — and he has other crops planned for next season.

He is still haunted by last year’s experience, when virus yellows brought his yields down by about 35% — plummeting from 78t/ha to 52t/ha. “It was a lot of money,” he says.

But he is happy at the price increase. “It’s better — very much welcome,” he says. But he adds: “It’s still a challenge if our yield is being restricted by virus yellows.”

What he is hoping for is more disease resistant varieties of the crop in the future, he says. “It’s still a significant part of the cropping but we are trying to reduce our dependency on it,” he says. “With late harvesting you need a good crop to follow it.”

In the case of the Euston Estate, the next crop in is maize which is used to power the farm’s anaerobic digestion (AD) plant so works well within the rotation, he says. But he adds: “Our dependence on it has decreased.”

NFU Sugar and British Sugar’s one-year sugar beet contract from 2022, includes the continuation of a virus yellows assurance scheme.

Current multi-year contracted growers will have the option to upgrade to a fixed £25 per adjusted tonne by contracting for an additional contract year. There will be no separate market-linked bonus. These prices are on a zero-crown tare basis, meaning growers are paid for the entire roots of beet they deliver.

NFU Sugar board chairman Michael Sly said: “Following another difficult negotiation, we have finally managed to agree terms with British Sugar. The substantial increase in the one-year contract price reflects the increased costs and risk sugar beet growers now face and recognises the fact that sugar beet must offer returns comparable with alternatives.  

“After a successful pilot this year, the futures-linked variable priced contract will now be available to all UK sugar beet growers. This contract offers both growers and the processor the potential to lock in attractive prices, meaning all parties can benefit from it. Other countries around the EU are starting to follow our lead on this and I am sure that this type of contract will become increasingly common as EU countries modernise their thinking and practices.”

Nick Morris, head of central agriculture at British Sugar, says the company is “really pleased” to announce the increase.

“A number of factors have changed in the market like they do in any commodities market, starting at the farm gate level. Most of the crops they (farmers) can grow at the moment have grown substantially in value whether it’s wheat or oilseed rape and clearly we need to be competitive with those,” he says.

Sugar prices have also been on the rise, he says. “Yes, it’s a substantial increase on our part but we wanted to relay that confidence to our grower base.”

But at the same time, the area of sugar beet grown has dropped by about 10% from 100,000ha to 91,000ha. He admits that two difficult growing seasons in a row haven’t helped. “The last two campaigns have just been very, very trying. We had a huge amount of rain that persisted for a long time. Without a doubt that has been unprecedented.”

This year’s crop is looking a lot healthier .