Sugar beet has been grown on Lankfer’s 225-hectare (556-acre) family farm in the village of Wereham since his grandfather first introduced it in 1928, alongside other crops. However, recent years of falling prices, coupled with risks from weather and disease, have many farmers questioning whether there is a future in growing it.
This is before growers feel the impact of post-Brexit trade deals with large sugar producers such as Australia. It’s a concern for Lankfer, whose land is in international trade secretary Liz Truss’s constituency. He has twice hosted her at the farm to answer questions from growers.
British farmers hail sugar beet for its role in crop rotation and the timing of its harvest. “It’s a good break crop, and it spreads the workload over the winter,” says Lankfer.
The destination of his beet is visible from the field itself: the factory at nearby Wissington where it is processed, eventually ending up in products such as Coca-Cola and Cadbury chocolate, or bagged and sold to consumers under the Silver Spoon brand.
Tate & Lyle, the food company which was a prominent supporter of Brexit, only processes imported raw sugar cane, mostly from the tropics, which arrives by ship at its huge refinery beside the Thames in east London.
Like the villain #Voldemort in the Harry Potter books, some beet farmers refuse to mention the company by name, grumbling about how Tate & Lyle products are branded with a union jack by virtue of being processed and packaged, but not grown, in the UK.
Imported raw sugar cane is often cheaper than British or European-produced beet, yet domestic sugar producers were protected by quotas and subsidies during the UK’s EU membership while tariffs restricted the amount of cane imported, which goes some way to explaining Tate & Lyle’s pro-Brexit stance.
“It’s a perfect storm, whichever way you want to look at it,”…
… Says Michael Sly, an arable farmer in the fens of north Cambridgeshire, and chair of the National Farmers Union’s (NFU) sugar board, which represents growers in their annual contract negotiations.