Fresh potato sales enjoy post-Christmas increase

"The decline in fresh potato sales has abated and we are now seeing an increase," James Lee, business unit manager at Greenvale's recently established agronomy division Produce Solutions, told a Syngenta potato seminar earlier this month.

Potatoes: high-volume threat now comes from Belgium - image: HW
Potatoes: high-volume threat now comes from Belgium - image: HW

"This time last year we were seeing vast price deflation but that's now tailed off, and we have seen a decline in the number of promotions on potatoes, including two-for-ones," he said. "The retailers recognise they were losing value, and there has been no effect on volume."

Fresh potato sales over Christmas were "great" he said, with a 5 per cent rise in volume and a 2 per cent rise in prices giving a 7 per cent rise in value. "These are big numbers in retail," he said, adding that Tesco and Lidl had put on market share at the expense of Asda and Morrisons. The rise over last year as a whole was a more modest 0.4 per cent.

Yet challenges remain, he said. "For the past 15 years, yields have pretty much flatlined, while the total planting last year was the lowest since Potato Council records began, at 111,000ha," he explained, adding that if this area remains the same and growing conditions are average, production will only just pass the 5m tonnes mark this year.

Within this, the most popular varieties are also those showing marked decrease in planting, he added. "Maris Piper has lost 30 per cent of area in the last 10 years, while Estima has fallen from a peak of 17,000 to 3,000, and Charlotte's future as a branded variety is looking dodgy."

He also warned that with its high-volume production, Belgium "is the biggest threat in the chip market", pointing out that the UK currently imports around 850,000 tonnes of processed potato products.

He predicted that 2016 will see further supply chain rationalisation, saying: "Large customers like McCain want to deal with the most efficient growers." Meanwhile in the processed sector, Albert Bartlett "is taking on McCain with oven chips and other bagged products, which are being aggressively promoted".

The chip shop market, meanwhile, "hasn't changed much in 70-80 years", though there are fewer merchants now supplying the potatoes in a raw state.

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