Think of British farming and you conjure up images of fields of wheat rippling in the breeze, hillsides dotted with grazing sheep or ripe, rosy apples bursting with flavour and ready to be picked. What very few people will think about is sugar beet.
Perhaps that’s not surprising. After all, it’s not attractive, you don’t see it in its raw state very often and it barely gets a mention in the media. But without it we’d struggle to bake cakes and biscuits, make jam and icing or even sweeten our morning tea. The sugar we use in food and drinks every day comes from one of two sources: sugar cane (a member of the grass family, grown in tropical and semi-tropical countries); and sugar beet, which is a brown root crop, similar to a parsnip.
Sown in spring then harvested in late autumn and early winter, around 7.5 million tonnes of sugar beet are grown in the UK every year. In fact, it’s a crop that’s important enough to have earned a unique name for the period of harvest and processing; it’s what beet farmers call ‘the campaign’.
Hard to beet
Although sugar beet has been used as animal food for centuries, it’s a relatively new commercial crop in Britain and dates back just over 100 years. That’s when farmers in East Anglia were encouraged to grow sugar beet for sale to a processing factory across the North Sea in the Netherlands.
Just before the outbreak of the First World War, investors felt confident enough to open the first sugar processing plant on British soil, beside the River Yare at Cantley on the Norfolk Broads. More than anywhere, this village can claim to be the birthplace of the sugar industry in this country. To this day, the bright lights and tall chimneys of the Cantley plant remain an industrial landmark and a major local employer.
The heart of sugar beet country is still eastern England, from Yorkshire down to Essex, along with the West Midlands. It’s a classic rotation crop because it creates a ‘break’, returning organic matter to the soil, aiding biodiversity and helping to prevent plant diseases. So you’ll often see beet being grown in conjunction with wheat, barley or beans.
Timing is everything
The harvest, or campaign, always takes place late in the year, when the sugar levels in the crop are at their highest. Just like the summer harvest, timing is crucial for the farmer, because if it’s left too late, the winter frosts will damage the crop. Long gone are the days when the beet was harvested by hand and employed thousands of people in weeks of backbreaking work. Today’s mechanical harvesters even remove the tops of the leaves, so they can be used for cattle feed or be ploughed back into the field as a natural fertiliser.
Sugar beet is bulky and heavy, so it’s notoriously difficult to transport, which is why Britain’s four processing plants (at Bury St Edmunds and Wissington in Suffolk; Newark-on-Trent in Nottinghamshire; and Cantley) are so close to the main beet growing areas.
Once the crop arrives at the factory it’s cleaned and chopped into slices known as cossettes. They’re mixed with hot water to extract the sugar from the beet, which is then filtered and boiled under vacuum conditions. This produces a thick syrup and the resulting crystals are granulated to produce the sugar we’re all familiar with.
All the sugar beet grown in the UK is processed by British Sugar plc, but the company isn’t only involved in putting packs of the stuff on the supermarket shelves. It also takes imported sugar beet, creates animal feed from the pulp, generates electricity at the processing plants and claims to have created the UK’s first bioethanol plant, producing ‘green’ fuel. It’s all a long way from those pioneering Edwardian farmers who took a chance on an unfamiliar crop.