Saturday, March 28, 2020

Beet a retreat?

February 28, 2020 by  
Filed under Clodhopper

Farmers need more say  in how sugar beet is grown – otherwise they will simply stop growing it, says Clodhopper.

I used to enjoy growing sugar beet. It isn’t easy on land that is as black as soot or so heavy it sticks to your boots in summer. But at the time, sugar beet was the go-to crop for most farmers – the bread and butter of farming.

At one stage, prices almost touched £40/tonne. Then the wheels fell off, the beet price plummeted, oilseed rape prices increased and many farmers decided to leave the crop behind. Beet prices fell to below £20/tonne – despite encouraging words from British Sugar and the NFU.

Today, it remains a monopoly industry. Growers once had freedom to make their own haulage arrangements – choosing when to lift. No more. Today, under British Sugar, haulage and harvesting times can all be pre-arranged.

The farmer has little control. He can even rent his land to British Sugar and let them grow the crop.

All the years I grew beet, I was being constantly told that weed control was key. I was told to consider pre-emergence products where possible, keep the crop clean and make sure I always rogued any seed beet.

Untidy crops

Now here is my problem. Take a look at your local beet crop and spot the difference. My local area over the autumn has seen many untidy beet crops – and even today some remain in the ground due in the main to just in time harvesting.

Weather has played its part, of course. Even so, not so long ago when farmers lifted their own, all beet was in the yard by the end of November or early December. Rather than spending time and money on the crop, the mantra now seems to be “Keep costs to a minimum”.

Gone are the tractor hoes. Even the headland overlaps are not removed. It was always good practice to plough early and leave the seedbed over winter so the weather could do the work. Today, it is cultivate, leave alone and then drill straight into a stale seedbed.

Is it any wonder that seed beds in the spring take an age to dry out? Cost alone dictates the cultivation regime. It seems the plough has no place in modern beet production.

Nearly every grower years ago used to store beet on pads. Mountains of beet were strawed or sheeted over – particularly if frost was forecast. And woe behold if any beet were frozen – resulting loads being rejection and returned by the factory.

Deaf ears

Nowadays, it seems common place to store beet on the field alongside a farm track, farm or country lane – it does not seem to matter. In many cases, a self-propelled loader, or Maus, is used to pile the beet into lorries which stands on the road.

Sometimes this makes life difficult for other road users. Once recent incident in our neck of the woods saw a young mum on the school run unable to pass a line of lorries being loaded with beet. Delayed for some 35 minutes, her complaints fell on deaf ears.

Reputation

Incidents like this damage the reputation of the industry. As farmers, we need to keep the public onside – especially at a time when the sector faces so much uncertainty and upheaval. Rather than antagonising them, we need non-farming folk to support what we do.

Contractors need to be more courteous. Understandably, though, they are pressed for time – there are easier ways to eke a living than by loading and hauling beet – and their equipment requires a hefty investment for marginal returns.

I know times are tight, but farmers also need a decent return for sugar beet. Otherwise they will stop growing it for British Sugar – and the only beet seen in fields will be for anaerobic digestion or fodder for livestock.

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