East Cambs Farmers Debate The Future Of Sugar Beet

PUBLISHED: 09:50 01 September 2008 | UPDATED: 10:32 04 May 2010

Sugar beet farmer Trevor Bedford

Sugar beet farmer Trevor Bedford

IT S a busy time of year for farmers in East Cambridgeshire as they work around the clock to harvest their crops. The wheat harvest is now well underway, and everyone working on the land is dodging the showers to get it finished. Meanwhile, a hugely debat

IT'S a busy time of year for farmers in East Cambridgeshire as they work around the clock to harvest their crops.

The wheat harvest is now well underway, and everyone working on the land is dodging the showers to get it finished.

Meanwhile, a hugely debated topic among farmers is the uncertain future of growing sugar beet, which will be ready next month.

The Ely Standard has spoken to two East Cambridgeshire farmers about the crop; one has decided to stop producing it; the other says he will continue for now.

AFTER 60 years of growing sugar beet on the farm, Paul Morris at Plantation Farm in Little Thetford has decided to call it a day.

"It was a difficult decision," he said.

"My great-great-grandfather first started growing beet on this farm and we continued with it over the years.

"But looking at our finances now, beet isn't profitable anymore even if I seriously cut our costs.

"I personally don't think it has been a bad move at the moment - but we'll have to wait and see what happens."

Mr Morris farms 12,000 acres of land with his brother AJ, and the pair have been seriously looking at replacing the beet for some time.

Farmers sell their beet to British Sugar, which is in a powerful position as there are no other competitors. British Sugar negotiates the buying price of beet and farmers are bound by contract to supply the factories.

Twenty years ago, the crop was worth as much as £40 per tonne but for 2009 the minimum beet price has been set at £24 per tonne. In comparison, wheat is bought for around £150 per tonne.

When selling the beet, farmers are paid according to the weight and sugar content, so weather conditions and the soil have to be close to perfect for the best value crop.

Mr Morris decided to lease his British Sugar allocation for free to someone else for this year's harvest to complete his beet contract.

"Last year it was a disaster after the really wet weather," he added. "Everywhere was flooded and the beet couldn't stand it."

He knows that once British Sugar has shared out his quota to other farmers, it could be very difficult for him to get the contract back.

"I can't find anyone to take it on," Mr Morris said. "If I lose it [the contract], I lose it.

"I think a lot of farmers are still growing beet because that's what they've always grown in their lifetime."

While the brothers have already replaced the beet fields with oil seed rape, Trevor Bedford, who farms at Paradise Farm near Witchford, is sticking to the beet.

He is preparing for the start of next month's harvest but isn't committing long-term and constantly reviews his contracts with British Sugar.

"Yes, the price has fallen dramatically over the last few years," he said.

"I have seriously considered my options as the input costs such as fertilizer and diesel are going up, but I think the prices will eventually increase.

"Farmers seriously want British Sugar to raise their prices but it can dictate the value of beet as there is no competition around.

"I only grow this crop on a year-by-year basis, I would never commit to a long-term contract - it's too risky."

Mr Bedford's farm currently produces 1000 tonnes of beet and their services are also contracted out to harvest sugar beet on other farms.

"We also take our equipment to farms to help with the harvest their crop," Mr Bedford added.

"As we have all that machinery, I'm seriously reluctant to give it up."

His family started supplying beet in the 1930s to Ely Beet Factory.

Now his crop is now taken to British Sugar and processed at Europe's largest beet factory at Wissington.

"Beet is a challenge to grow as the conditions have to be right -that's what I enjoy about producing it," he added.

"But the company which owns British Sugar made serious multi-million pound profits last year, and it can afford to increase the prices."

Photos: HELEN DRAKE. 5732HD0808 5737HD0808.

Pic cap: Trevor Bedford at Paradise Farm, near Witchford will continue to grow sugar beet.


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