Sugar beet in Britain
In the United Kingdom sugar beet provides just over half of the sugar we use. The beet sugar industry took off here in the 1920s for two main reasons: firstly to make Britain more self-sufficient in sugar production after the shortages of World War I (1914-1918); and secondly to boost the depressed agricultural industry by giving farmers the opportunity to grow a valuable cash crop.
Origins of the British beet sugar industry
By 1900 the beet sugar industry was firmly established in mainland Europe and had even spread to the United States where, in the south, sugar cane was already an important crop. Britain lagged far behind France and Germany in establishing a 'home-grown' sugar industry. There was no sense of urgency because our cane refineries were plentifully supplied by plantations in the colonies and cheap, raw beet sugar was available from the Continent.
Short-lived attempts at growing and processing sugar beet took place in the mid 1800s in numerous areas, including Maldon in Essex, Lavenham in Suffolk, and Mountmellick in Ireland. These enterprises failed for various reasons: farmers were reluctant to grow a crop they did not know; the factories were ill-equipped; or the projects simply ran out of money.
Interest in sugar beet stayed alive, however, because of the crop's success wherever it was introduced in Europe. Also, experiments were showing that sugar beet could flourish in British soils and weather conditions. Nevertheless, concerted efforts to develop a British beet sugar industry did not emerge until after the turn of the century.
Britain's first sugar beet crop was grown and processed in Norfolk more than 80 years ago. That first harvest and factory 'campaign' began a remarkable partnership between agriculture and industry that has endured throughout the 20th century.
While making a major contribution to Britain's economy, the beet sugar industry has been a way of life for generations of farmers and factory workers.
Growing sugar beet
Preparing the fields for sugar beet begins as early as the autumn when the soil is tested to see if phosphate, potassium and sodium (minerals) need to be applied before ploughing. Sometimes lime is spread on the fields to ensure that the soil is not too acidic. Sowing generally takes place in late March and early April. Nitrogen fertilizer is applied at this time to help the crop grow, and specialist herbicides may be sprayed over the fields to stop weeds growing. Timing is critical in the growing and harvesting of sugar beet. The harvesting period, known as the ‘campaign’ amongst farmers, takes place between September and Christmas when the amount of sugar in the beet is at its highest. A delay in harvesting can prove very costly to the farmer as sugar beet is easily damaged by frost. Harvesting is therefore finished as quickly as possible.