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Growing potatoes profitably

Managing risk in the field and risk in the market are both essential elements in safeguarding margins in the potato crop. With margins right across the board being squeezed, aiming for top quality produce is a must because quality will always sell, says James Hopwood, director of Yorkshire packer Ibbotsons Produce Ltd.

Managing risk in the field and risk in the market are both essential elements in safeguarding margins in the potato crop. With margins right across the board being squeezed, aiming for top quality produce is a must because quality will always sell, says James Hopwood, director of Yorkshire packer Ibbotsons Produce Ltd.

Supply and demand are the two factors influencing potato prices and according to Potato Council figures, the 2014 growing season resulted in a bumper 5.7m tonne crop. That's 3 percent up on the previous season. With changes in eating habits resulting in falling potato consumption throughout Europe, oversupply can only mean poor prices for growers, with only the best quality at a small premium.

"Price pressure in the market has made life difficult this season but there's now a price gap opening, with Maris Piper, Desiree and King Edwards seeing an increase in prices," says Mr Hopwood. "Good quality whites are relatively easy to place but poorer quality is selling at £60-80 per tonne. That's below the cost of production for growers and not a sustainable situation.

"The last 6 months, quality demands have been higher than usual as a consequence of an over-supplied market. Defects which are obvious like greens, are easy to grade off. Our real concerns are with internal defects, wireworm and slug damage," he says.

"These are harder to grade out and we can't allow them to slip through the system and reach our customers. Quality is king in a difficult market and internal defects will result in downgrades or even stock feed."

It’s too early to tell whether the call to reduce the potato area being planted by 10% has been heeded by growers or what the weather will throw at us. With growing costs for potatoes averaging somewhere in the region £1,800-2,200 per acre (£4,448-5,436 per ha), assessing and managing risk is vitally important to growers to protect their investment in the crop, explains Mr Hopwood. “Contracts are one way of doing this”, he says, adding the proviso that growers will need to meet stringent quality and quantity targets.

"It's a question of balance. In the current situation growers are taking a keener view on managing their risk by having a proportion of their crop under contract to mitigate some of the risk of selling in a free market."

Having a good relationship with a buyer should mean they will go out of their way to find a market outlet for inferior produce to assist growers, believes Mr Hopwood. "Provided a sample meets the market standards for the plant protection products used to produce it, a home can often be found for lower quality packing samples in the processing sector."

In the field, decisions regarding risks posed to production by soil pests such as wireworm and PCN and soil-borne diseases have already been made and treatments applied where possible. The threat of slug damage and decision whether to apply slug pellets is a decision growers will soon be deliberating.

Potato Council and HDC have estimated slugs would cause losses of £53 million each year across all potato sectors if left untreated and already cause £8 million of damage each year across fresh produce sectors.

Going into this season, slug populations are not as huge as they were two years ago, says SRUC’s Dr Andy Evans. “After a relatively mild winter, slug populations are ‘normal’ going in to the spring. Cultivations and planting operations will kill a percentage of slugs and expose slug eggs so birds can feast on them.

“Slugs will come to the soil surface if it’s moist and it’s a good idea to bait traps with Alpen to get an indication of whether slugs are active,” he says, adding that if the soil is dry then traps aren’t a reliable indicator of slug presence. “If any slugs are found in a trap then slug control measures will be necessary.”

Another tip for growers is to pay attention to achieving good weed control, especially in slug prone fields. “Slugs will feed on weeds so where weeds are poorly controlled or weed control is late, slugs are being encouraged by the ready source of food,” explains Dr Evans.

When slug pellets are applied, don’t reduce rates. “Keep to label recommendations – applying less pellets than recommended reduces the chances of slugs encountering pellets,” he says. “Getting the timing of pellet application right is crucial. Apply just before the canopy meets across the row so that the pellets reach the soil surface rather than lodge in the foliage.

“The humidity in the crop increases at canopy closure, which encourages slugs on to the surface where the pellets are,” explains Dr Evans. “If you miss this timing then slug control will be an uphill struggle. Repeating applications in early and late August will boost control.”

Ibbotsons’ farming grow 600 acres of potatoes on a range of soil types; Yorkshire Wold, sand, loamy silt and medium loams, with the heavier Wold land most likely to be troubled by slugs, says BASIS qualified James Hopwood.  

“We find ferric phosphate has a good fit in potatoes. It’s very insoluble so gives a long period of protection to the growing crop while having minimal effects on other wildlife,” he says. “It’s always a challenge getting the pellet to slugs but we aim to get a first dose on early followed by the critical application just before canopy closure.”

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