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How BBRO’s Vicky Foster protects East Anglian sugar beet

13 March 2023

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Find out how Dr Vicky Foster, head of the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO), based at Norwich Research Park, supports one of East Anglia’s most important crops.

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here

Tell us about the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO). 

BBRO provides sugar beet growers with the resources they need to grow a healthy and profitable crop. We were set up by British Sugar and the National Farmers’ Union to build the tools, research and knowledge exchange to support the UK’s 3,000 growers – a large proportion of which are in the East of England. Together we have increased sugar beet yields by 25% over the past 10 years and 50% in the past 30 years.

As head of BBRO, I am responsible for driving our strategy, setting the budget and directing investments, as well as ensuring BBRO has a happy, healthy workforce that delivers the best service to our customers.

What does sugar beet mean to the region? 

The sugar beet industry is incredibly important for East Anglia. Sugar beet is a mainstay of farmers’ rotations as a spring crop, which helps growers manage their workload and control pests, diseases and weeds because it allows them to get on top of those problems at different times of the year.

We could do with more rain at times, but the East has got everything needed to grow sugar beet crops, like good soils. But intensive farming since the green revolution has affected soil health. The sugar beet harvest starts in the winter and requires heavy machinery that can damage soils if conditions are poor. Our work in the future will try to bring a better resilience back into the soil.

What research does the BBRO conduct? 

We focus on applied research and market research that gives growers practical messages and agronomy solutions such as the optimum nitrogen rates to apply to crops or the best timings to apply plant protection products or harvest certain varieties.

We monitor temperatures and humidities to track conditions that are conducive to the development of diseases. That means we can warn growers in a high-risk area to check crops and apply fungicides appropriately. We work with plant breeders to develop varieties and integrated pest management approaches to help growers throughout the season.

We also support PhD projects at the University of East Anglia (amongst other universities) and work with organisations such as the John Innes Centre at Norwich Research Park to enhance our knowledge on pests like beet leaf miner and a key issue for sugar beet growers: managing the Virus Yellows disease.

How did you end up working in Norwich? 

I studied applied biology at Nottingham Trent University. I specialised in plant and environmental science and completed a year in industry at British Sugar. Next, I did a PhD at Rothamsted Research on the ergot fungus and worked at the Home-Grown Cereals Authority (later AHDB) for 15 years.

It wasn’t until an opportunity came up to lead BBRO located at Norwich Research Park that I moved to Norfolk because that’s where sugar beet crops are!

What’s the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park?   

BBRO started off as a small business based at the Innovation Centre. Having access to shared laboratories made a huge difference. We’ve since moved to the Centrum building, which has great facilities and an atrium that is perfect for networking. Being with like-minded people is really good for the team and offers fantastic opportunities.

Norwich Research Park is also a great place for women in science. More women are coming into agronomy but there’s still work to be done. It’s so important to support girls and ladies coming into science to change the world. I’m very proud to lead BBRO as a woman and I’ve always been a firm believer that you create your own destiny. If you want something and work hard enough, you can achieve it.

What do you get up to when you are not working? 

My husband, John, and I love restoring and enjoying our collection of classic vehicles. Our family has two cockapoos, Ralph and Millie, and we love taking them to the beach at Wells and Holkham. I also have two horses, Amber and Ruby, and we compete in British Dressage and British Riding Club championships across Norfolk and Suffolk

Vicky Foster is head of the British Beet Research Organisation at Norwich Research Park. You can follow her on Twitter @VickyFoster74

Image by:  BBRO / Vicky Foster

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