Beet Ireland tries to sweeten the deal for sugar farmers

Moves are afoot to revive the Irish sugar industry but it will take a lot of knocking of heads together, writes Joe Dermody

Chris Harmon led recent meetings in Cork.

Beet Ireland will use 60% of the sugar that comes out of the factory

THE minimum €40 per tonne collected price for sugar beet proposed by Beet Ireland is enough to support farmer interest, say those backing plans to revive the industry.

Tillage farmers say they are extracting a profit from beet sold for €30-€35 a tonne, either to EcoBeet for use in the North or sold locally as animal feed.

At recent Beet Ireland open meetings in Kilkenny and Cork, IFA grain committee chair Noel Delany raised a few eyebrows by suggesting that the firm would need to pay €55 a tonne to entice farmers to put up the €25,000 each that would be required to pay to sign up for a contract with the company.

Mr Delany said: “When we finished in 2006, we were getting €45 a tonne, and all our input costs have gone up since then. If the money doesn’t stack up, farmers won’t back it. It’s no cheap operation, with €25,000 up front.”

Mr Delany rejected any suggestion that the IFA is embarrassed over its role in convincing farmers to accept EU compensation for the closure of the sugar industry back in 2006.

“I don’t think that stands up,” he said.

“We regret that Greencore pulled the plug on it. It wasn’t really our choice. It is great to see the Beet Ireland’s enthusiasm, and if we get the right price we will back it — €55 a tonne would make the contract viable.”

Beet Ireland notes that the global sugar price has doubled from about €450 per tonne when the Irish industry closed in 2006 to around €900 today. In terms of beet prices, the company’s promoters say Dutch and Danish prices of €50-€60 per tonne are a better guide than looking to UK commercial prices.

Tipperary-based Fine Gael TD Noel Coonan has called upon the IFA to make a clear statement on where it stands on a revival of the industry.

“We have an opportunity to reinstate this industry now,” said Mr Coonan. “The IFA is berating the minister now on cuts for commercial farmers in the CAP negotiations. One would expect a professional organisation — of which I am a member — to support an industry with real commercial potential.”

Mr Coonan also said Beet Ireland will be a farmer-run venture, whose profits will be ploughed back into the company.

His Fine Gael colleague, Cork-based Tom Barry, has backed Beet Ireland’s efforts for the past two years. He is confident the EU will give Ireland the derogation it needs for a sugar revival; EU quota restrictions are likely to extend to 2018 or even 2020, whereas Beet Ireland wants its 250-acre sugar plant to be operational by 2016.

“We have only been compensated up to 2015 in any case,” said Tom Barry. “We have received a very good reception in Europe. There has been a major change in the sugar industry in Europe. Everyone is now in deficit for sugar,” he said.

Mr Barry said Beet Ireland will use 60% of the sugar that comes out of the factory. The EU is aware the Irish sugar industry’s main focus is on its domestic market.

Since January, the European Commission’s sugar committee has authorised the import of 584,000 tonnes of white sugar — nearly half the sugar imports the EU is expected to approve this year.

A coalition of food and beverage industry groups has urged EU lawmakers to reject the committee’s bids to extend the quota to 2020, saying it defies a binding agreement made in 2006 to phase out market protections.

Beet Ireland member Jim O’Regan said all of the major banks want to invest in the Irish project. People attending the open meetings were pleased with progress made to date on quota, and with the minimum €40 per tonne price, which includes collection from the grower.

“Our model is that of a farmer-led co-op,” said Mr O’Regan.

“It is built on the continental model of the Dutch and the Danes, who are paying farmers €50-€60 a tonne for beet. Ireland is now growing 20% of the beet we were producing in 2006, which tillage farmers are selling for €35 a tonne.”

The recent meetings in Cork and Kilkenny were lead by Beet Ireland directors Chris Harmon and Brian Arnold, both of Country Crest. Others backing the revival were Peter Wolfe of Atkins Farm Machinery and Macra president Alan Jagoe.

Letters of support have been submitted by Cork Farm Machinery, Grassland Fertilizers, Atkins, aand Gouldings, and dairy co-ops including Dairygold, Barryroe, and Bandon, among others.


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