07:58 Wednesday 15th May 2013
Bigger Breakfast Show
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
(MUSIC: PINK PANTHER THEME)
PAUL STAINTON: Right now ladies and gentlemen, we have a mystery. The Bigger Breakfast Show Mystery. Cambridgeshire’s sugar beet crop has been affected by a mysterious problem, which prevents up to 50% of seeds from growing. Fields affected have very low plant populations, and those plants which do grow have very little root growth. And no-one knows why. John Goodchild is the farm manager at Cambridgeshire’s Bartlow Estate, and a member of the NFU Sugar Board. Morning John.
JOHN GOODCHILD: Good morning Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: What’s going on here?
JOHN GOODCHILD: Well, the crux of the matter is we don’t really know. As I say, significant numbers of seeds that have been sowed have failed to make it above the ground.
PAUL STAINTON: Is this the first time it’s ever happened?
JOHN GOODCHILD: Well I’ve grown sugar beet for well over thirty years, and it’s the first time I’ve known it to this extent. Basically, to put it in context, you normally sow 110,000 seeds a hectare. Each little seed is an individual sugar beet, believe it or not. And in a normal year you’d expect 85% of them to grow, which would give you around about 90,000 plants to the hectare. And that’s an optimum number. This year, as you said, in a lot of cases perhaps only 50% have actually made it. In extreme cases it’s probably 30%, 35%.
PAUL STAINTON: And that could be a huge problem, because sugar beet is integral, isn’t it, for farmers. A million tons grown a year. A billion pounds for the UK economy.
JOHN GOODCHILD: That’s right. It’s a major crop for farmers in the East of England. And the mystery is we don’t really know what’s happened. If you dig down where the plants are missing, if you like, if you dig down carefully with a trowel, get the seed out, you see that quite a lot of them put a shoot upwards, heading for the sky, and they’ve just failed to make it. They’ve given up the ghost, curled round and died. And a lot of those plants don’t seem to have any significant root system either.
PAUL STAINTON: This is going to be a big problem, isn’t it? They grow quite a bit of sugar beet in Cambridgeshire.
JOHN GOODCHILD: Well it’s a negative impact, whatever happens with it really. If you haven’t got an optimum plant population you’re looking at a loss of potential yield.
PAUL STAINTON: Is it just sugar beet?
JOHN GOODCHILD: It’s just sugar beet, as far as I know this year. Yes.
PAUL STAINTON: Who have you called in?
JOHN GOODCHILD: We’ve called in British Sugar. We’ve had a look at those. They’re gathering evidence as to the extent of the problem and the symptoms. And the British Beet Research Organisation, known as BBRO, are at present testing seed lots, and they’re trying to replicate in the laboratory the weather conditions and soil conditions at the time of sowing.
PAUL STAINTON: Well John, keep us up to date on what is going on there. John Goodchild, farm manager at Camridgeshire’s Bartlow Estate there, a member of the NFU Sugar Board, saying that over 50% of some of the crops are not taking. It’s the Great Sugar Beet Mystery of our time. What is going on?