As featured in Arable Farming Magazine May 2021
Uncertainty rife as new season potatoes planted
by Arable Farming
Potato growers are entering a third pandemic-hit season with plenty of other uncertainties influencing how much they will plant. Cedric Porter reports.
Lockdowns and restrictions on eating out hit consumption of potatoes in foodservice outlets, but in-home consumption has been more buoyant, although the strong demand seen in the first lockdown in March 2020 was not repeated in the latest lockdown.
Average prices, according to AHDB, have risen from £135/ tonne at the beginning of October to £175/t at the end of March.
That quote includes all types of potatoes including contracts.
The average free-buy price has risen from £85/t at the beginning of October to £145/t at the end of March.
Those averages hide a wide range of values.
Good quality packing English Maris Pipers can make more than £300/t, £200/t more than generic white types.
Demand for processing potatoes is still muted.
Most of the UK processing crop is sold on contract, but those with free-buy stocks to sell cannot currently expect much more than £100/t.
The loosening of Covid-19 restrictions and the likelihood of a staycation summer has injected some life into the bagged chipping market, with prices steadily rising and expected to rise further as holiday and post-lockdown trade steps up.
English prices are averaging about £150/t for a number of bagged varieties, but that is still around £100/t below the price before the pandemic took hold in March last year.
Unlike in other parts of Europe, there are not excessive stocks in British stores.
AHDB figures for the end of January estimate that 2.110 million tonnes were in farm stores – 2.3% less than in 2020 and similar to the five-year average.
Continued lockdowns in February and beyond, increasing fish and chip demand and the return of restaurant and pub dining mean that pile of potatoes should dwindle nicely into the summer.
As well as ensuring the best market for their old crops, growers are focusing on planting the 2021 crop amid continuing uncertainty.
After a very wet winter, in many potato-growing regions of the country, conditions were dry from March to at least the middle of April.
This allowed soils to dry out, assisted by sunshine and wind.
However, cold temperatures have impacted on establishment.
Independent agronomist Simon Faulkner, of SDF Agriculture, based in south Lincolnshire, says: “Conditions at the beginning of April were much drier than last year, allowing growers to prepare their fields for planting.
“Light soils are now in good condition following the dry weather, although there are some wetter conditions under more full-bodied soils.
The main issue is the cold conditions, which could cause rhizoctonia.” As well as the usual vagaries of the weather and the more unusualimpact of Covid-19, the potato market is being affected by Brexit.
British seed still cannot be exported to EU countries – they normally account for around 30,000t of seed sales a year.
The absence of that market is likely to mean a reduction in the British seed area of about 1,000 hectares.
Trade in ware and potato products has also been up-ended by the UK’s final departure from the EU’s trading system.
January export figures showed ware exports were little more than 6,000t.
One of the smallest monthly totals on record and just a fifth of the volume shipped in January 2020.
In contrast, January ware imports were similar to last year at just short of 10,000t.
A large supply of European potatoes could put pressure on the British market if there is a shortage of UK stocks later in the 2020/21 season or early next.
It is too early to say what the final British potato area will be, but the continuing uncertainty over Covid-19, Brexit, cold spring weather and a market for less risky higher-priced alternative crops such as cereals suggests that the area could be smaller this year.
“There appears to be a lot more unsold seed around this year and most of the growers I know are retaining their same area, but there are some who have reduced significantly,” says Mr Faulkner.
Based on 2020 AHDB figures, a 5% drop in British plantings would take the national potato area to 113,000ha – the second smallest total on record after 2015.
Average yields of 45t/ha would result in a crop of 5.090mt, with poorer yields likely to drop the total to below 4mt for only the fifth time in history, something which could support prices.
The current uncertainty surrounding potato growing could lead to more growers giving up the crop.
There are now fewer than 1,900 registered potato growers in Great Britain.
There were double that number 20 years ago.