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An enhanced support package for sugar beet will do little to stop many growers giving up the crop for good when their current contract... Processor and growers clash over beet support package

An enhanced support package for sugar beet will do little to stop many growers giving up the crop for good when their current contract finishes, say industry leaders.

It comes after British Sugar offered growers a Beet Package Plus for the 2021/22 crop following a disastrous season. The package includes an enhanced contract beet price with a guaranteed minimum market linked bonus from 80p per adjusted tonne.

Yields during the 2020/21 season were decimated by a bad start to spring, widespread problems with virus yellows disease and a wet winter. Many growers reported yields had halved with poor sugar contents compounding the problem.

As well as enhanced beet price, farmers are also being offered cash flow support with the opportunity to defer their seed invoice interest-free until harvest. But NFU Sugar chairman Michael Sly claims it is worth just 1p per tonne of beet.

Flexible approach

British Sugar said its factories would also operate more flexibly to accommodate beet deliveries, recognising that growers understandably did not wish to operate harvesters in fields that were waterlogged and simply unsuitable for lifting.

A £12m virus yellows assurance fund remains in place. The fund is provided by British Sugar for three years, starting from the 2021/22 campaign, to compensate growers for a proportion of yield losses suffered where virus yellows is present in their crop.

British Sugar agriculture director Peter Watson said: “Following a difficult season in 2020/21, we are pleased to offer this enhanced support package to our sugar beet growers, to help the whole industry for the upcoming season.”

The guaranteed surplus beet price would be fixed at £20.30 adjusted/tonne for 2021/22. “We thank growers for their considerable support over the last year and look forward to working with all our colleagues across the home-grown beet sugar industry in the upcoming season.”

‘Jam tomorrow’

But NFU Sugar board chairman Michael Sly said: “NFU Sugar in no way supports or endorses British Sugar’s Beet Package Plus communication sent to growers and does not believe it is anywhere near enough to stop many growers giving up sugar beet for good.”

Mr Sly, who farms at Thorney, near Peterborough, said NFU Sugar had expressed its concerns to British Sugar about the viability of the home-grown crop for months. Low contract prices, and the rising risk of disease, meant it was no longer viewed favourably by many growers.

“Throughout, NFU Sugar has argued for a targeted package to acknowledge the risks growers have and will continue to face in growing the crop. This has not been delivered.

“NFU Sugar also urged British Sugar to increase the support for those growers who are honouring their multi-year contracts and so risk big losses again this year. British Sugar refused.

“NFU Sugar urged British Sugar to pay growers some of their 2021 contract in early summer to help with the desperate cash flow situation many growers are facing. Again, British Sugar refused.

Increasing concern

Mr Sly said growers would also see the guaranteed surplus price for 2021 for what it was: a desperate need by British Sugar to help secure all the beet it could get for the coming year given the smaller than normal area being drilled this spring.

“To our growers British Sugar claims poverty, but to the City its parent company Associated British Foods recently announced a £100m profit for the global sugar division AB Sugar, driven in part by improved profitability at British Sugar.

“Market conditions this year indicate British Sugar’s profitability will likely continue to improve. We believe that growers will not be seduced by British Sugar’s vague promises of ‘jam tomorrow’ in this letter to growers, or in its previous communication.”

Mr Sly said NFU Sugar believed in the future of the home-grown sugar beet industry. But he and other growers remained increasingly concerned that British Sugar stance was putting the sector at severe risk.