Beet that: €300m plan to revive Ireland's sugar industry

The top table, from left: Pat Cleary, Jim O'Regan, Simon Cross (all Beet Ireland), Bobby Miller and Clive Carter, both Irish Grain Growers Association at the meeting in the Talbot Hotel, Carlow. Photo: Alf Harvey.
The top table, from left: Pat Cleary, Jim O'Regan, Simon Cross (all Beet Ireland), Bobby Miller and Clive Carter, both Irish Grain Growers Association at the meeting in the Talbot Hotel, Carlow. Photo: Alf Harvey.

Storm Powell

The unveiling of plans to redevelop the sugar beet industry in Ireland attracted a crowd of over 300 farmers to Carlow last week.

The meeting was told that it will cost €300m to revive the Irish sugar industry, and that the commitment of farmers to grow beet will also be required.

The meeting was organised by Beet Ireland in conjunction with the Irish Grain Growers' Group (IGGG) and was the second of a series of meetings to entice farmers to invest €1,000 each in a newly formed beet grower's co-op.

The initiative is based on getting 1,000 growers to produce 1.4 million tonnes of beet per year, which equates to 50,000ac or an average of 50ac per grower.

Beet Ireland was established in 2011 to develop a new sugar and bioethanol industry in the southeast.

Following a feasibility study and the abolition of EU sugar quotas in 2017, the company purchased a site in Ballyburn, near Castledermot, Co Kildare.

The information meetings are being held to appraise growers of progress and to secure farmer engagement in the project.

"We are at a crossroads now; we have purchased a site, the beet quotas have gone, we are now asking farmers to come on the journey and be proud of what they own," said Michael Hoey, chairman of Beet Ireland.

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The next step is the planning and design of processing facilites. Support will be sought from the Government, investors and banks, and it is envisaged that the project will be completed at a cost of €300m by 2022.

A comprehensive presentation on the potential of the beet industry, and also the proposed development of the site, was given prior to the meeting.

The advantages of beet as a rotation crop were outlined. The meeting was told that the production of sugar, beet pulp and bioethanol will have a significant input into the overall profitability of farming, and there is also potential for new added-value products.


Like other crops, price fluctuations will influence the price per tonne.

Other questions from the floor included queries on transportation, cleaning methods, machinery, value-added products, financial projections and dividends.

Jim O'Regan, Cork tillage farmer and Beet Ireland director, told the meeting that reviving the beet industry required farmer investment.

"We want to establish a future for the tillage farmer. The dairy co-ops started small and have been successful. Dairy farmers had no problem investing in their future; we need to do the same for tillage," said Mr O'Regan.

It is hoped that by the end of the year there will be adequate commitment from farmers to proceed to the next stage of the planning process.

By joining a co-op, farmers will have an input into the development of the project, the meeting was told.

Growers will also be invited to invest further at a later stage but the full extent of the investment required could not be quantified at the moment, the meeting heard.

Bobby Miller 

Stradbally, Co Laois

The chairman of the Irish Grain Growers' Group, Bobby Miller is in tillage and beef and farms 145ac. He has already invested his €1,000 in the project.

"The large turnout shows an appetite for change," he said. "There is certainly an element of trust and faith, and also risk."

The IGGG is playing its part in getting the sugar beet industry back by accepting payments from growers. Bobby is particularly pleased with the co-op structure of this venture, and intends to commit beet as a rotation crop to his present tillage acreage.

"It is now totally in the hands of the farmers if this project is to proceed," he said.

George Byrne

Bennekerry, Co Carlow

George is a tillage and beef farmer, with 500ac in tillage.

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George Byrne, Bennekerry. Picture: Alf Harvey.

"I will certainly engage with the process," he said. "I came with an open mind and now feel that the investment will be well spent. I will spread the word.

"It will be of great benefit for the wider farming community. I hope that 1,000 farmers invest. Businesses need investment, this is a venture for the future from which farmers, rather than multinationals, will benefit."

Noel Lawler

Narraghmore, Co Kildare

Noel, 55, farms 300ac and is excited at prospect of a revitalised beet industry.

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Noel Lawler, Narraghmore. Picture: Alf Harvey.

"The meeting was well presented and positive. Like any new industry, it is hard to get initial commitment and there is a bit of uncertainty, but I feel there is potential," he said.

Noel grows fodder beet. "There are a lot of advantages to beet, it's a good catch crop, it's more profitable than wheat or barley, and it provides a cleaner and healthier rotation," he said.

Noel is undecided on the investment. "It is very hard to decide on the spur of moment. I will go to a further meeting to clarify some points."

Tommy Doyle

Kilcullen, Co Kildare

Tommy has been farming in Ballyshannon all his life and grew beet for over 20 years.

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Tommy Doyle, Kilcullen. Photo: Alf Harvey.

He farms 100ac, dry stock and tillage, mostly spring barley. He would like to see the sugar beet industry back.

"The country needs it as all the sugar is now imported. We need our own sugar to stop imports," he said.

Tommy is interested in investing but is uncertain whether he will be in a position to grow sugar beet.

"I keep stock and would have to take conacre to have enough land to grow it.

"The price would, of course, be important but as we can't tell the price of grain from year to year - it's understandable that we are not being offered a definite price this evening."

Colm Fingleton

Ratheeniska, Co Laois

A founder member of IGGG, Colm is a grain farmer.

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Colm Fingleton, Ratheniska. Picture: Alf Harvey.

"I am heartened by the huge turnout," he said. "Farmers have had a bit of time to forget the beet production of the past and are looking forward to new structures.

"Farmers are looking for higher margins and also for diversification. Producing sugar beet will reduce the acreage of other crops and this should increase prices."

Colm is likely to invest in the industry but is still unsure if he will grow the crop.

"I will wait and watch with interest how it progresses," he said. "This venture will raise the profile of the tillage farmer who needs an industry in which to invest. It was a very positive meeting."

Pat Cleary

Monasterevin, Co Kildare

A director of Beet Ireland, Pat farms 750ac with his son Darragh, of which 65pc is leased. It is predominately tillage.

Pat was delighted with the turnout.

"We had a lot of registrations on the night. The more the farmers put into this, the more control they will have," he said. "We have seen the success of the co-op template both in Ireland and overseas and are very optimistic about this venture.

Pat also emphasised the positive effects of growing beet on our carbon footprint. In addition, by producing sugar in Ireland, we omit carriage from abroad.

"This venture will provide a significant job boost for south Kildare not just in agriculture but also for ancillary industries," he said.

Photos: Alf Harvey

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