State of the industry: potatoes

Decent yields from 2010 offer hope for the industry but growers are cautious looking ahead, says Jez Abbott.

Recent analysis of potatoes on one farm found damp caused 20% yield losses - image: Malcolm Couzens
Recent analysis of potatoes on one farm found damp caused 20% yield losses - image: Malcolm Couzens

It should have been a poor year for farmers - all that sun beating down followed by a rain-whipped autumn. Yet Robin Cropper's potato yield was surprisingly good. A wet October delayed harvesting, which finished just before ice could clamp its frozen grip on his Maris Pipers and Accords. It was "touch and go, high-pressured", he admits, shifting his gaze from 350ha to the skies.

"This year is in the lap of the gods," says Cropper, who mostly supplies fish-and-chip shops in south-west Lancashire. "Weather is the biggest factor and fortunately our potatoes put in a lot of growth in September, which made yields better. But even good yields and prices can throw up problems."

Cropper worries that temptation will get the better of growers with similar good luck stories, who will "pile on the acreage" on the back of a good year. This could swamp, and depress, the market. On top of that, the fairly low incidence of blight - thanks to all that sunshine - could be a further incentive to go big on spuds in 2011.

"We had the worst year ever in 2009 and took quite a hammering because prices were very poor," he says. "Last year was much better and you fear suppliers will see you are doing well and, as if by magic, all the prices suddenly jump up. I hope people moderate thoughts on acreage and it stays similar to its current level."

There are pitfalls to increasing acreage. Tuber quality, for example, though better than expected was smaller in size than Cropper had hoped. Then there was the problem of storing such a wet harvest in units, hugely expensive to keep at seven degrees. Paper, meanwhile, like costs for oil and fertiliser, has gone through the roof and he bags up 6,000 tonnes of potatoes.

Joining a buyers' group can give growers powerful leverage when it comes to negotiating prices, but if the cost of oil spikes there is not much anyone can do, explains Cropper, who nevertheless remains optimistic. Rising commodity prices and a growing population combined with better eating habits "should be reflected in better margins".

Andy Alexander is also watching production costs, which he thinks may rise 15 per cent this year thanks to machinery and haulage price hikes. The independent potato specialist in East Anglia says: "This is a high-risk crop. Returns can be good but the financial risk is quite enormous. Nowadays, fewer people grow potatoes, so the risk is higher. It's specialist."

Alexander is involved with landholdings totalling 1,200ha. Lack of water in spring and summer threw up quality problems. Then came the rain, leaving growers storing damp, soil-clumped spuds in high humidity. To lessen the risk of crops breaking down in 1,000-tonne stores, they will be unloaded sooner than planned, he says.

"Our concern is how many potatoes we will have in July. We're putting a less-than-desirable product into store and this has big implications. Few growers have surplus labour and there's a good chance they'll be delivering crops when they're planting, which will pressure workforces. Poor weather also means seed from Scotland could be late."

Analyses of crops in the ground by Alexander suggest yield losses of 20 per cent due to deterioration caused by damp. But had growers lifted those crops last autumn and left them to fester in storage, losses could have been around 50 per cent. And though the quality of those that survive could be an issue, he says: "I think the market will be quite hungry".

Strong demand in 2011

For this reason, Alexander is upbeat about 2011 - some growers will reduce acreage, demand will be robust. But a careful review of nutrition and water is important, especially in the east, which scorched in summer. Growers should consider soil sampling, he says - not a spadeful of the brown stuff from the corner of a field but proper GPS sampling.

This could help crops. Dry spells may have made last year "the best ever" for blight control, but threats still lurk. The Alternaria pathogen is "raising its head" more, possibly due to use of newer, more susceptible potato varieties. Strains of black leg bacterial disease, meanwhile, also threaten due to the wet and possibly the use of Dutch seed.

Cropper and Alexander belong to the NFU potato forum, set up last year to tackle crop issues, and both men can rest easy on acreage. According to GB Potatoes: Market Intelligence 2010-11, a new report from the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board, total area is down from 130,000ha in 2009 to under 127,000ha - around 182,000 Wembley Stadium pitches.

Maris Piper, Estima and Lady Rosetta were grown the most and total production in 2010 of 5.8 million tonnes was also down on the previous year's almost 6.2 million. Three-quarters of the domestic crop is grown on a pre-season contract. At the farm gate, this amounts to £618m in sales. At a consumer level, however, sales value jumps to £3.5bn.

Author and senior analyst Jim Davies says: "The 2010-11 season was variable, with some growers delaying harvest to increase bulking rates, in many cases successfully. The current free-buy price at £174.23 per tonne is 96 per cent higher than this time last year, influenced by tighter supplies in north Europe and strong export demand."

This drop in acreage and volumes in times of recession goes against the grain. Alex Godfrey, who trained as an accountant before working on the family farm in north Lincolnshire, harks back to his accountancy lectures, when spuds where singled out as the staple "anti-recessionary" product. Consumption, which should have gone up, has not done so.

Potato growers this year, and in years to come, face a demographic time bomb. Food is still cheap and the big potato eaters are 45-plus and ageing fast, cooking up bad news for growers. This affects the market. Godfrey's prices this year range from £100 to £230 per tonne against £30-£150 last year.

Growers need help and Godfrey is worried about dwindling pesticide choices and a lack of research. Epitrix potato flea beetle from Portugal, for example, is a constant threat to our shores and devastates crops. Pests can adapt and consumers are fussier, so growers need the wherewithal to be vigilant. He believes that research and development funding is crucial.

Dai Llewellyn, a ProCam agronomist, agrees and worries that more invasive strains of diseases like blight could lead UK growers to follow Dutch practices. Spraying every five days instead of every seven could push up costs for chemicals by 20 per cent and those for labour as well. In spite of pesticide bans, he says, there are enough controls.

But watch out for surprises. A rise in wireworm outbreaks reflects pressure to cut costs and perhaps less-than-perfect care of soil. Potato prices held up quite well in the year - in some cases £250 per tonne - but with high fertiliser and diesel prices, says Llewellyn, the "only saving grace could be interest rates staying where they are".

A need for science

Grower Allan Stevenson echoes Llewellyn and Godfrey on the need for science. Recent budget cuts by the Government are likely to filter from lab to field. Grants for irrigation and co-operative farming will be squeezed, so growers wanting help to expand in 2011 may have to wait.

"Losing, say, £100,000 of funding for research could be the difference between a major discovery in nematodes or blight, or failure. The cuts in funding come just when we need it most. Pest and diseases get smarter and the need for a stream of new products is more important." Stevenson, who grows King Edwards and Desiree for supermarkets on 130ha in Essex, says yields were marginally down on long-term trends and tuber sizes were smaller than ideal for packers and processors.

Last year's hot spells have prompted him to build an extra irrigation reservoir to ensure that he does not run short again. Inflation, meanwhile, may force more change.

"Rises in inputs are only half the story, while increasing wheat prices give the excuse to hike up the cost of not only fertiliser but pesticides. We rent land from neighbouring farmers on a one-year basis to grow potatoes. We may have to pay more because the farmer who rents out the land could say: 'I can plant wheat and make a bigger profit.'"

But potato growers can still benefit from the skyrocketing wheat market, says specialist grower and director at Greenseed John Addams-Williams. He would like to see a five per cent reduction in overall potato acreage to balance supply and demand. Why grow spuds when wheat is a low-risk alternative that guarantees a profit, he asks.

"Common scab, blight and aphid have caused a few problems but prices have been reasonably buoyant, growers have had fewer rejections and the market is less fussy. Potatoes that aren't quite as good still get used."

But demand is dictated by supermarkets and the power of a promotion is "quite scary" because when it ends sales can collapse, he warns - driving home the volatility of a potato market reliant on more than the weather.

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