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.
After a year where some crops haven’t covered their costs, James Hopwood, director of Yorkshire packer Ibbotsons Produce Ltd, is working with growers to help them provide the right quality to their customers and consumers.
It's been 'difficult' trading after a favorable growing season resulted in a bumper 5.7m tonne potato crop, according to Potato Council estimates. Quality standards vary from year to year and are influenced by supply and demand, explains Mr Hopwood.
"The last 6 months quality demands have been higher than usual - a consequence of an over-supplied market. 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.
"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."
Slug damage is one of the risks growers often try and 'insure' against by applying slug pellets to at risk fields and varieties. Potato Council and HDC have estimated slugs would cause losses of £53 million each year across all potato sectors if left untreated. For field vegetable production, it's estimated slugs already cause £8 million of damage each year.
Assessing slug risk and control begins in the previous crop, believes Mr Hopwood, who is also BASIS qualified. "If you're challenging slugs for the first time at the point of the potato canopy closing, then it's already too late," he says, adding that previous cropping, cultivations, variety choice and field selection all have a significant influence on slug numbers.
Reuben Morris, Potato Technical Manager at Frontier, agrees the main objective in slug control is to try to get rid of them before they start eating potatoes. Getting the slugs to the surface to eat pellets is always a challenge. Just before canopy closure remains the critical timing in the growing crop. The shading of the crop provides moist soil and humidity to bring slugs to the surface and increases their likelihood of encountering slug pellets on the soil.
“An application at 50% ground cover followed by a second application a couple of weeks later are the crucial timings for pellet applications. The growers’ best option is to switch to ferric phosphate (Sluxx), which performs better than metaldehyde in potatoes,” believes Dr Morris.
“Good quality pasta-based pellets give the best control and ferric phosphate has few restrictions in use and gives the longevity needed to provide control once the canopy closes."
Growing under Contract is another way growers can mitigate risk, says Mr Hopwood, adding the proviso that growers still 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 with such volatility."
So producing a quality crop is vital in an oversupplied market, but what happens when it goes horribly wrong? 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."
And on a positive note, for the right quality things are looking up, says Mr Hopwood. "Price pressure in the market place has made life hard work this season but there's now a price gap opening, with Maris Piper, Desiree and King Edwards all seeing increase in prices.”