'Save our sugar': Norfolk family firms tackle big bosses

Bags of sugar from Norfolk growers of sugar beet

Sugar crunch talks: Growers of sugar beet in Norfolk are calling for fairer prices from British Sugar otherwise they are warning they will stop producing it. - Credit: Getty Images

Angry owners of some of Norfolk's oldest family businesses met with British Sugar and demanded: 'Stop squeezing us on price.'

These heads of family farms said the future of an age-old industry based in the county was at risk over a 'looming crisis of confidence' in the crop.

Sugar beet harvesting in north Norfolk at the end of October Picture: Kit Papworth

Sugar beet harvesting in north Norfolk. - Credit: Kit Papworth

More than 350 growers, who produce a total of 2m tonnes of sugar beet, tackled the issue of price with British Sugar's managing director Paul Kenward and agriculture director Peter Watson, in a private online Zoom meeting on Wednesday night.

Peter Watson, British Sugar

Peter Watson, British Sugar - Credit: British Sugar

Mr Watson issued a statement from British Sugar, which is a subsidiary of ABF, Associated British Foods, also owners of Primark, saying they had "listened to the feedback, taken it on board...and were reflecting on how to respond to the concerns raised."

Growers of sugar beet - currently sold at around £21 per tonne - say it's unsustainable and are demanding at least £10 per tonne more.

Sugar beet at the Cantley factory in Norfolk

Sugar beet being loaded at the Cantley factory. - Credit: Archant

Farmers say an entire industry depends on them getting a better price with sugar factories in Norfolk in Cantley and Wissington being major employers.

And the end result for the consumer is more sugar being imported, say the growers, doing more food miles and which may not be produced to the same environmental standards as in Britain.

Andrew Murdo sugar beet grower, Norfolk

Sugar beet grower Andrew Murdo. - Credit: Archant library

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Andrew Murdo, who grows sugar beet at Wroxham Home Farms, said: "We need British Sugar to award us with the right price. We cannot continue growing it otherwise.

"The drawback is what would we grow instead? Sugar beet is a fabulous crop, but there are cheaper ways of losing money. We need a significant increase, not 50p a tonne, as this affects so many people and the Norfolk economy.

"If they closed Cantley sugar factory, it would affect significant amounts of people and the sugar would be imported. You've then got issues of food miles and carbon footprint so we have to grow beet for the local market."

British Sugar Cantley Factory.Picture: ANTONY KELLY

British Sugar Cantley Factory. - Credit: Archant

Michael Wilton, who grows around 14,000 tonnes of sugar beet a year, on the Stody estate near Melton Constable, said: "We want a price per tonne that begins with a 3...we understand the issues British Sugar has but the grower is taking ever more risks for little reward.

"We can't keep growing a crop which loses us money. The Norfolk economy would be a much poorer place without sugar beet.

"I don't think some of the general public know the difference between Silver Spoon and Tate & Lyle sugar and we need more awareness about buying home-grown sugar. But people are driven by price not always provenance."

Their comments come after other farmers including one whose family had grown sugar beet for more than 100 years recently said they could no longer afford to keep producing it.

Fenland sugar beet grower and NFU Sugar board chairman Michael Sly said the governments new zero-tar

NFU Sugar board chairman Michael Sly. - Credit: NFU / Tim Scrivener

Michael Sly, chairman of NFU Sugar, National Farmers Union, said: “More than 350 growers, representing nearly a third of all sugar beet grown in the UK, were participating in a private call with British Sugar. This level of attendance clearly shows the depth of feeling in the grower base about the current unviability of the crop.

“NFU Sugar has been telling British Sugar for months there’s a looming crisis of confidence."

Mr Watson, of British Sugar, said: “We continue to listen to their feedback and take it on board. I will work with my British Sugar colleagues to reflect on what we heard and see how we can respond to the concerns raised by our growers.

"We are optimistic for the year to come and remain confident in the future of our home-grown beet sugar industry. We look forward to working with beet growers and our colleagues across the industry over the 2021/22 season.”

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