HC Deb 01 March 1911 vol 22 cc503-10

moved, "That this House do now adjourn."


My reasons for rising now are the very unsatisfying answers which we have received to certain questions with regard to the growth of sugar beet, the fact that the whole of private Members' time has been taken by the Government, and the very great importance of the subject to the working men of the country as a whole. We have heard a great deal about the Right to Work Bill, afforestation, and so on; but I think that if the growth of sugar beet were proved to be a success and were encouraged, it would be of very great benefit to the working classes, without the need for any Right to Work Bill at all. If I may quote for a moment from the Report of the Board of Agriculture of the United States it will be seen that one of the first things that followed on the establishment of a sugar factory in the district referred to was the influx of labour from various sources. "When a new factory is under consideration for a district the farmer says: 'I cannot possibly secure enough help to do the work I now have on the farm: What can I do if I sign a contract to grow an intensive crop like sugar beet, thereby very much increasing the amount of labour required on the farm.' The reply to such a statement is that the sugar factory will solve the problem. To the ordinary farmer this seems paradoxical, but it is perfectly logical. Watching the development of conditions around every sugar factory now in operation in the United States I have yet to find a case where the advent of a sugar factory has not attracted labour not only for growing beets but for all kinds of farm work."

The Government say very properly that they want to put people back on the land. I am all for that. I have done the very best I can to encourage this in my own district. An hon. Gentleman challenges that statement, but I can only say this: that last year at my own expense I grew a measured area of sugar beet which cost me a considerable amount of money, for in addition to the expense of growing the crop I had the whole of the roots very carefully weighed, both with and without their tops. I paid the expense of sending some of these roots to London and the chemist's fee for making an analysis. I had no use for that sugar beet except to give it to the cattle. For the sake of the district I was glad to do all I did, but you cannot expect the ordinary farmer to go to that expense; and here I think that the Government should relieve the farmer of every expense so far as it is possible if he is willing to devote a piece of his land and his own time and trouble in making an experiment. In the first place, I applied to know where I could get the best seed for the purpose, and the reply was: "From any seed merchant." I understand that some of the experiments which were tried last year failed because seed was used which was not the most useful for producing sugar beet of the best kind. Surely if it is true that the growth of sugar beet in this country is going to put an enormous number of people on the land—a thing that the Government profess to want to do, and that the Labour Members wish to see—if this sugar beet cultivation is going to bring about this revolution and provide an enormous amount of farm employment, it is the business of the Government to encourage the experiment and see whether or not the cultivation of sugar beet will or will not be a success in every way. The Government should give every facility to those who are willing to try these experiments. We are told that the Government are carrying out certain experiments of their own in the growth of sugar beet. There is, I understand, a certain amount of money available from the Development Fund. In encouraging this cultivation that money would be put to a very much more useful purpose than in some of the wild-cat schemes that we have heard advocated for the disposal of this money. I would ask the hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Board of Agriculture to see that those farmers who are willing to go to the expense and trouble of these experiments in sugar beet cultivation are supplied with the best possible seed, are given the best possible advice and help, and are saved the expense which now falls upon their shoulders of paying the carriage of roots to London for examination and the cost of analysis when they get to London to be examined. It is not right that this should fall upon the shoulders of the working farmer. I would appeal to the Board of Agriculture to remedy it as far as possible.

The establishment of factories raises a very different question. There is the most urgent need at the present moment that some factories should be established in this country where the practical experiment could be tried of collecting the roots and producing a paying industry. I do not suggest that the Board of Agriculture should establish a factory or subsidise one, but what I would appeal to them to do is as far as possible to afford every facility and every encouragement to such a factory if established. In the interests of the working man I am sure it would pay them in the way of providing employment for the unemployed, and I will not put it on so low a basis as obtaining votes from working men and returning Members to this House. We have asked questions in this House about this. For myself I think the House will agree that I ask very few questions and supplementary questions, and it has always been my endeavour never to ask a question unless it was for some useful purpose. With regard to this sugar beet growing, I did ask a question this afternoon, and the answer I got from the hon. Gentleman was a very short one. I do not not complain of that in any way, but I know how difficult it is to get any satisfying information by questions across the floor of this House or by supplementary questions. I wish to ask the hon. Gentleman now in his own interest and in order to avoid supplementary questions, in the interest of the working man and of the sugar beet growing industry, that he will amplify as far as possible now the answers which he gave to us to-day. I ask that he will give us the whole information he has at his disposal as to what steps the Government propose to take or are taking in encouraging this industry. One thing we should like to know is whether there is any idea of putting an Excise duty on this beet, because, if so, it would kill the whole industry. I do ask the hon. Member to give us all the information he can as to the steps which he has taken to encourage this industry.

The SECRETARY to the BOARD of AGRICULTURE (Sir Edward Strachey)

The hon. Member has complained that my answers are unsatisfactory.


That is not what I complain of. I said "unsatisfying."


That is only a distinction without a difference. The hon. Member must be aware that I stated in this House that it was the intention of the Government to devote certain sums of money not to the kind of experiments which have been made hitherto, but to ascertain how beet can be grown as an ordinary farm crop. This question, which has now been before the country for some years, divides itself into two parts. The first is, Can beet be grown as an agricultural crop; and the second, Can it be sold at home or abroad at a profit? That is exactly what we propose to demonstrate. We have not had experiments on a large scale, and it is simply on the ordinary quarter-acre plots that experiments have been carried out. Everybody knows that those experiments are very interesting, but you cannot judge from them whether beet can be successfully cultivated on an agricultural holding and cultivated at a profit by the farmer. It is generally agreed that this question of growing beet-root for sugar purposes has passed out of the experimental stage and that beet can be grown in this country. What we have to consider now is the best way beet can be grown not on experimental plots, but how experience may be gained from the cultivation of an ordinary crop on an ordinary farm. There is still a good deal to be learned, and the best way of gaining experience is to do what the Board of Agriculture propose, that is, carry out experiments on a large scale upon farms belonging to agricultural colleges to which grants will be made for that purpose by the Board. I think we have yet a great deal to learn as regards seed, climate, and soil. The hon. Member for Handsworth (Mr. Meysey-Thompson) said that the cultivation of beet in Yorkshire had been a failure.


No, I did not say it was a failure at all.


As regards profit?


I said I had to use the roots for cattle, but I could not make a profit, because there was no factory to which I could sell the beet.


From a financial point of view I understand that the hon. Member cultivated beet at a loss, but that was due to the fact that there was no market to sell at. I think it is very necessary that we should make large experiments as regards the selection of seed. With reference to strain a good deal depends on the soil. One class of seed may suit one particular farm and soil, but it may not suit another. It is exactly the same as with the cultivation of mangolds, you have to consider the kind of seed most suitable for the soil. For example, the yellow globe are the most suitable for shallow soil, and if you have deep soil you could use the long red mangolds. If you are dealing with a rich loam you would not use the yellow globe but the golden tankard. Exactly the same conditions apply to the cultivation of beet. You must consider whether it is a clay soil, deep, or shallow, and the sun and rainfall has a good deal to do with the cultivation of sugar beet. I noticed in a speech made by the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. W. E. Home), who is a great authority on agricultural questions, he pointed out that he had grown twenty tons of beet sugar and it was very deficient in sugar owing to the fact that he had grown it on land unsuitable, because it was sandy soil with rock only six inches underneath. I have seen, in my own county of Somerset, a crop of sugar beet that produced 17 tons 12 cwts. to the acre with 17.3 of sugar. On the other hand, in the county of Norfolk, on the black land, 7 tons 11 cwts. were produced with only 16.34 of sugar, showing very clearly that we have got to find out what is a suitable soil for growing sugar beet. It would seem as if it would not be satisfactory to grow sugar beetroot in Norfolk on the black land under the same conditions as in Somerset. There is no doubt that what we desire to do is not to grow these small experimental plots of a quarter acre, but, on the other hand, to grow it on larger areas of four or five acres as an ordinary farm crop, and for that reason I think it is very desirable that there should be further investigation.

The Board of Agriculture are giving these Grants to agricultural colleges to carry out these experiments practically at the cost of the Board, so that it can be found out in what particular areas sugar beet does best, what is the proper seed to employ in the various areas, and in what rotation it is best grown. That is a very important point, which can only be proved by practical experience. There is also another very important point which has not yet been considered or experimented upon on any large scale, and that is the question of the manuring of the beet crop. There have been some rather interesting experiments made about that. I had the opportunity in the autumn of seeing two crops which had been raised on adjoining farms in the county of Somerset. In one case the produce of beet was 17 tons 12 cwt. with 17.3 of sugar, whilst side by side on the same farm 46 tons 10 cwt. of mangels were produced. On an adjoining farm 17 tons 6 cwt. of sugar beet was produced, but the sugar was only 14.1. Adjoining that plot there were mangels growing, and it is rather interesting that in that particular case the mangels produced 63 tons 5 cwt. It is rather remarkable that where you have got most mangels and heaviest manuring you have less sugar. What was the treatment of those particular plots? The first plot which had the most sugar was folded with sheep and lightly dressed with dung and 3 cwt. of salt. The plot which showed only 14.1 of sugar was treated with thirty loads of dung per acre, 6 cwt. of salt, 7 cwt. of Webb's mangold manure, and 1 cwt. of nitrate of soda.

That instance alone shows how important it is we should obtain experience on different farms to see what proper kinds of manures to apply and how they ought to be applied. It seems to me probable not very heavy manuring is required, but it is essential you should have very good land, and that that land should be in first class condition. Then again it is necessary to make experiments as regards the best kind of implement for harvesting the crop. The House will agree that where labour is not cheap it is very necessary indeed to lessen the cost of cultivation as far as possible, and it will be necessary to have experiments with horsed lifting machines. Then, again, the Board intend to provide where desirable implements to be used upon these experimental farms for the cultivation and the lifting of beet. We have also got to inquire most carefully into what would be the cost of labour. The cost of labour undoubtedly is much less in the Netherlands and Austria than in this country. In Austria great quantities of beet are grown, and there is a large amount of female labour employed. Unless we can see our way to use labour saving machinery it is doubtful whether the cost of labour alone will not make it impossible for us to compete successfully with the foreign beet growers. There is also the question whether beet can be sold at a profit. That, of course, depends on whether or not factories can be established in this country. On this particular point I should like to refer to a lecture by Mr. Stein, before the Herefordshire Chamber of Agriculture last May, in which it was asked— Why is it that John Bull has hesitated to grow his own sugar and prefers sending his millions abroad? The old bounties prevented the growth of sugar beet in this country, and even closed many of our refineries. But now, with the abolition of the bounties, we could grow it remuneratively. We find soon after this a prospectus issued by the Beet Sugar Development Company of England, stating that 12 to 15 per cent. dividends are paid by German factories for beet sugar sent to England which could be produced at the same profit at home. If that be the condition of things, surely there are financiers in this country who would be perfectly ready to come forward and set up factories, provided they can rely on getting a supply of beet. It is for us to show to the agriculturists of this country by large experiments, such as I am suggesting, that the thing is practicable. I repeat, if farmers consider it practicable, if they believe the cultivation can be carried on at a reasonable cost, then I believe financiers will be forthcoming to carry on the industry. I noticed that the hon. Member for Rye (Mr. Courthope) is reported to have said the other day that if we only went into official figures in sugar-growing countries it would be found that just over 30 per cent. is returned on the paid-up capital of the companies. If that be the case there should not be the slightest difficulty from the point of view of having factories set up, without any protection of the sort whatever as suggested by the hon. Member for the Handsworth Division the industry can be carried on at such a profit. It seems to me that all we have to do at the present moment should that be the case—and I have no reason to suppose that the figure given by the hon. Member for the Rye Division is not correct—he is always very careful in his statements—all we have to do is to go on with these larger experiments—I would rather term them demonstrations—in order to prove that under certain conditions of cultivation, manuring and the use of labour-saving implements, sugar beet can be grown by the farmer as an ordinary crop on his farm.


While I am glad that the Board of Agriculture proposes to allocate certain sums of money for the cultivation of beet on a large scale, it would have been much more interesting to the House if we could have heard what those amounts are likely to be. We have been informed that the Development Fund has not had calls made upon it to the extent that was anticipated, and I should very much like to impress on the Board of Agriculture how very keen is the desire to promote this industry and to get suitable land for the purpose. The hon. Baronet has touched upon the subject of manuring. I can assure him that the im- portant question is the time of the year at which the manure shall be placed on the land in order to be of most advantage to that particular crop. Then there is the question of labour. I live in a district where we grow a large quantity of roots—

And it being half-past Eleven of the clock, Mr. Deputy-Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order. Adjourned at Half after Eleven o'clock.