SUGAR BEET farmers are counting the cost of December as they unearth devastating numbers of frost-damaged roots.
The worst affected region is the one supplying the Newark factory, including Yorkshire farms which used to supply to York.
British Sugar re-opened the Newark plant this week after closing it for six days, because rotten roots had clogged up the works, and has had advisers working flat out on farm visits, helping farmers to decide what is worth sending in, what might still be worth a little as fodder and what might as well be ploughed back into the soil.
Fodder beet prices have dropped because of over-supply.
Some farmers have lost half of their main crop of the year. Other winter crops have been hurt too, especially cauliflowers and carrots, but the scale of the beet losses is dramatic – around 70m worth in the Newark factory hinterland alone, according to one unofficial estimate.
The damage was caused when the early snow melted, removing its protective cover from the fields, and then the cold came back hard. With the temperature dropping to 13-18C below zero, night after night, beets were frozen while still in the ground.
The annual sugar 'campaign' runs September-March and it is common practice to leave a lot of beets in the ground until January or February, for late deliveries to the factory. Farmers point out that before British Sugar closed factories, the 'campaign' was shorter and most beets would have been lifted by Christmas.
They are used to dealing with lighter frost damage, by cutting off root tops and lifting what is left. But this season they have found whole roots rotting in the ground.
A British Sugar spokesman said: "We get these extreme events about once every 10 years and as it happens, it is about 10 years since the last one."
He said the extent of damage varied according to local circumstances and it was still too early to guess at an overall percentage. But British Sugar kept contingency stocks of its finished product – sold under the Silver Spoon label – and would be unlikely to run short.
Guy Poskitt, of Wakefield, a leading grower and growers' representative, said his beet crop was "a disaster" and much worse than a one-in-10 event. And he had lost a lot of table vegetables, too.
He said: "It's terrible. It's the worst year I have known and I'm 47."
Michael Craven, who farms near Melbourne, near York, and speaks for sugar-beet growers in the NFU, said: "The problems emerged with the thaw. The structure of the beet has been changed and as soon as temperatures are above freezing, it starts to deteriorate towards rotting. At first, British Sugar could still accept it, but it has got to the stage where a lot is too seriously deteriorated.
"On my own farm, we were lucky. I have my own beet harvester and as soon as I could, I lifted the crop and got it down to the factory still frozen. Luckily, my haulier had no other beet to take.
"But for some farmers, as soon as the ground was not too frozen, it was too muddy. Some of them are only getting half their crop."
The NFU is trying to make sure farmers are not doubly penalised for their losses. In theory, their quotas could be cut if they fail to deliver them.
A series of meetings for growers to discuss their problems will be attended by British Sugar representatives and includes one at The Vikings Hotel, Goole, DN14 6RG, from 9.30am on February 2.