Thursday, January 18, 2018

PLANS to resurrect Ireland’s sugar industry took a positive step forward this week with speculation that Beet Ireland is close to buying a site on the Carlow-Kildare border for a new national sugar-processing plant.

The lobby group is understood to be finalising a deal to acquire a 200-acre site in the Ballyburn area, just outside Castledermot, with plans to redevelop it into a €150m high-tech sugar processing facility, capable of producing up to 200,000 tonnes of sugar a year.

Beet Ireland would not comment specifically on details of the sale, citing pre-planning and public considerations, but it was confident about the viability of a rejuvenated beet industry. “We have been working on this project since the end of 2010 and the biggest hurdle we faced was the abolition of the beet quotas in Europe,” said Pat Cleary of Beet Ireland.

“We had to convince the people in Europe. The original EU reform didn’t work and the terrible irony is that when Carlow sugar factory closed, it was profitable … it closed for all the wrong reasons.

“The problem is that when you turn the key on something, it’s difficult to get it back,” said Mr Cleary, a Monasterevin-based farmer and one of Beet Ireland’s seven directors.

The viability of resurrecting Ireland’s sugar industry was boosted by the abolition of EU sugar quotas last September. A global slump in grain prices has deeply affected Irish tillage farmers, with many now looking at the prospect of once again growing sugar beet, seen as both profitable and an excellent rotation crop.

“Arable farms never really recovered following the end of the sugar industry and many farmers are now seeing the future of tillage in the revival of the sugar beet industry,” said Mr Cleary.

Mr Cleary indicated that the central location of Carlow, along with the support of local authorities in this area, had been a deciding factor in locating a site.

Beet Ireland has indicated that a new national sugar-processing plant would follow a collaborative model, with famers taking up to a 30% stake in the company. “From a financial perspective, we are endeavouring to put a package in place that growers will be happy with,” said Mr Cleary.

At a meeting of the Irish Grain Growers Group in Bunclody last week, tillage famers appeared optimistic about a revived sugar industry. The well-attended meeting not only included tillage farmers but representatives from the wider industry, including merchants and those involved in machinery manufacturing.

“The disappearance of sugar quotas in September 2017 has left the door open for a revived sugar industry. As well as a domestic market, it also opens up the serious prospect for export,” said Bobby Miller, chairman of the Irish Grain Growers Group.

Mr Miller urged a “change of attitude to tillage” in this country, stressing the importance of traceability and being carbon positive.

“Beet could have a major role in putting confidence back in the tillage sector,” said Mr Miller.

Deputy Pat Deering, who chairs the Oireachtas agriculture committee, attended the meeting to outline a report published by the committee on the future of tillage farming. The report recommended an updated feasibility study on the prospect of reviving the sugar beet industry.

“Beet Ireland has a business plan in place which shows that beet can be a sustainable and profitable business,” deputy Deering told The Nationalist. “The site is expected to be launched in the next number of weeks. I would be optimistic, but there are a lot of challenges they have to face … not least the €150m needed to put a processing plant in place.”

The Carlow TD suggested that processing sugar may require a few “add-ons to ensure profitability”, including bio-fuel or the production of feed products.

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By Suzanne Pender
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