Scrutton Bland Agri Team visits Sugar Beet Factory

25 March 2024 - Nick Banks

As rural Suffolk residents we’re all used to seeing the mountains of sugar beet appearing, piled by roadsides awaiting collection in the autumn and winter months. We note the arrival of these sugar beet mountains as a herald of the change in season; the cereal crops are harvested, the clocks change, the nights draw in and the sugar beet appear.

Having passed by theses piles of sugar beet numerous times, how much thought, beyond their transportation to the factory in Bury St Edmunds, have those of us outside the industry given to what happens to them other than they become the little white bags of sugar we see in our supermarkets.

Members of the Farm & Estates Team within the Business Advisory Department decided to find out more about this process and so a tour of the Bury St Edmunds sugar beet factory was arranged.

The factory in Bury St Edmunds is owned by British Sugar which is part of ABF Sugar. British Sugar sit in the Sugar ‘pillar’ of owned entities alongside Silver Spoon, who share the 100-hectare site just off the A14. Silver Spoon are responsible for the dry sugar we buy. Other ‘pillars’ of ABF Sugar include Agriculture, which includes Frontier and Trident Feeds, and Retail which interestingly includes Primark.

British Sugar are the sole processor of the UK’s sugar beet crop, taking in crop from over 2,300 growers. Over their four sites, they can process around 8 million tonnes of sugar beet per year, that’s around 50,000 tonnes per operational day, producing around 1.2 million tonnes of sugar plus many other by-products and co-products through the rest of the year. About 85% of this goes to food and drink sectors, with the remaining 15% going to consumers, cafes, restaurants etc.

The Bury factory started operations in 1924 and this site takes in sugar beet from the Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire area from September through to around February/March with the average distance between farm and plant, surprisingly, being only 28 miles.

Around 2 million tonnes of sugar beet are expected on site each season. This is, of course, highly weather dependent. The quality of the 2022 harvest was severely impacted by frosts and the 2023 harvest by incredibly wet weather, hampering efforts to extract the sugar beet from the ground. At the time of our visit, it was estimated that 10% of sugar beet crop was still in the ground. This has led to the facility slowing down to allow time for suppliers to deliver before the campaign closes.

Upon arrival, each lorry is weighed, and the driver will scan one card to register the gross load to the supplier and another to register that load to the haulier.  Haulier permits can be increased or decreased daily to manage daily flow of lorries to site.

Random lorries are selected for beet sampling with around 140kg piped off to a filter that reduces the sample to around 10kg. The sample is checked for frost damage and sugar content. If sugar content is over 16% then the supplier will receive more money than if the content is below 16% due to the amount of sugar that can be achieved from the crop.

The beets are deposited, and the extensive cleaning process begins. The beets are moved around the site by water; stones, soil and tops are removed. The beets are sliced into strips, mixed with hot water and lime, and the sugar is extracted, filtered and crystalised.  It is either distributed in liquid form to customers who require a wet product, or in dry form in varying weights to retail or industrial markets.

We were fascinated to find that sugar is not the only product on site. The sugar making process has created several by-products and co-products, resulting in virtually zero waste.

About 4,800 tonnes of stones are received with the beet crop each year. These are made available to civil engineering and construction projects. Around 200,000 tonnes of soil are washed off the beet each year. This is processed in the soil settling and conditioning pools before being marketed as TOPSOIL; who are the largest supplier of UK topsoil.

After the beet have been processed, the pulp is pressed and can generate around 500,000 tonnes of animal feed, marketed by Trident Feeds.

In 2016 an Anaerobic Digestion (AD) plant came into operation on the site as part of a £15 million investment. Pressed beet pulp is broken down in the digester creating biogas and biodegradable material. Biogas is used to create green electricity and the biodegradable materials marketed to farmers as soil conditioner and fertiliser replacement.

British Sugar is also the largest supplier of liming products to UK agriculture. Around 300,000 tonnes of liming product are made and supplied via their LimeX brand.

Internally generated electricity is used internally with any excess electricity sold to supply companies. At other sites, hot water from the beet processing is piped to glasshouses to maintain temperature levels and bioethanol is manufactured and sold.

All this is managed and maintained by a team of around 230 seasonal and permanent staff, providing support and targeted maintenance to ensure efficient processing; utilising technology to monitor vibrations and wear so that repairs can be carried out in a managed, low process interference way.

The Team was grateful to the staff at the factory for taking the time to explain to us just how much happens at this site, and that all the processes and products are a year round system, not just related to the few winter months of beet processing. As a department, our better understanding of the process, pricing and issues can only inform our ability to analyse and advise.


Related news

Get in touch for forward-thinking, impartial advice

With offices in Bury St Edmunds, Colchester and Ipswich, we’re close enough for personal meetings with clients from anywhere across the East of England. Got something on your mind? We’ll be happy to listen and give you our thoughts.

Call us on 0330 058 6559
Email us at

Get in touch