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The potato drought of summer 2018

The potato drought of summer 2018

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The summer drought that affected most of north-west Europe has resulted in both a lower and poorer potato harvest. At the beginning of October, it was forecasted that the eating potato crop was to be almost 20% smaller than last year. The North-western European Potato Growers (NEPG) association has estimated that crop yields in Belgium, the UK, France, the Netherlands, and Germany will be down 8% below the five-year average. Whilst some farmers are benefiting from a stronger free trade price others are struggling to meet contract tonnages.

Experienced potato farms can achieve yields of up to 70t/ha but the extreme drought and high temperatures have kept average yields to around 40t/ha and un-irrigated crops have struggled even more barely reaching 30t/ha.

The total predicted potato crop is only expected to between 25.5-24million tonnes despite there being an 8.4% increase in potato farming area across the five key producing countries. The result of this is a significant tightening of raw material supplies and a distinct reduction in the quality of what has been produced.

o    90,000 ha increase in land used for potato farming

o    8% reduction in harvest

o    Significantly smaller potato harvest

o    Harvest delayed as some farmers try and bulk up crops

o    Quality issues with size, colour, sprouting and secondary growths

Not only has there been a reduction in the size of the harvest, potato quality has also been badly affected. Farmers in all countries have reported abnormal/extra growths, and sprouting in the furrows raising questions about storage.

In line with quality issues, some European processors have already lowered supply standards and it is reported that starchy potatoes are being included in processing lines.

Farmers on the potato harvest so far (October 2018)

West Yorkshire, England

Patrick McCloy has 100ha of potatoes at Byham Park, Knottingley West Yorkshire. The farm has a contract with McCain providing Innovator and Royals.

Mr. McCloy says “we’re pretty lucky to be able to irrigate but we know for sure crops yields will be less”

A company called Agri Tech tested the farm’s soil and found water usage on the Royals had almost stopped and the Innovator never really got going. He also has further concerns over quality with many potatoes green and tubers cracking.

He also said “there is still potential in the crops, however, most of them have packed up. I have heard that a potato plant will completely shut down if temperatures are 27 degrees or above and we’ve had a few of those days.”

Erkelenz, Germany

Franz Püllen farms 220ha just 12 miles from the border. He estimates his 45ha of Challenger, Fontane and Markies potatoes will produce a yield of just 30t/ha at the most. Irrigation is not possible and they have had almost no rain for 5 months.

“Normally, we easily manage 50-55t/ha and sometimes in 60t/ha in the good years” he says. “Mind you, I was surprised to even get 30t given the season.”

North Brabant, Netherlands

Jarco Koekkoek decided to harvest in Mid-September having opted not to delay his harvest to allow tubers to bulk up. He wanted to prevent abnormal shoot and tuber formation to maintain quality despite sacrificing size.

His 12ha crop of Melody potatoes was planted late in May due to a wet April but the crops grew easily and evenly. He irrigated 7 times and three weeks before harvest treated the crop with maleic hydrazide to maintain quality whilst in storage. This season this should hopefully prevent abnormal shoot and tuber formation.

Mr. Koekkoek estimates his net yield is now 45t/ha compared to his normal 55t/ha.

Maisnil-les-Ruitz, France

Thomas Huyghe grows 50ha of potatoes on his farm in France. He is hoping his 35ha of Fontane potatoes to yield at about 45t/ha, he doesn’t irrigate and the crop has only had, at most, 100mm of rain since planting. My Huyghe is growing his potatoes on “virgin soil” and believes it is too early to judge. However, despite smaller yields, he is positive that this will be partly compensated for by the good price on the free-buy market.

The free buy price of potatoes is rapidly rising and is close to £250/t, that’s £110 more than this time last year.

The knock-on effect of this low supply of potatoes is slowly pushing up the cost of crisps and chips. In July Tom Keogh of Keogh’s Crisps stated that there were still enough of 2017 old potatoes reserves to keep crisp supply afloat for two weeks longer however if nothing changed supplies will be tight later in the year. The drought, of course, did not end and as a report showed on the 9th November prices are increasing on potato products. To manage availability between July and November there was 78 percent fewer deal on multipack crisps compared to the same period last year, according to The Grocer. Prices of frozen potatoes in supermarkets have also increased by 8p in the three months up to September.

As stated above starchy potatoes are being included in production so a complete shortage is not to be expected. Crisp manufactures have stated however that crisp sizes may be smaller due to the lack of growth. One Belgian crisp manufacture (Roger & Roger) has limited its range of flavours available to just the most popular in the hope it can give their potato suppliers time to allow their potatoes to grow and bulk up more as soon as it rains again. And then, in turn, harvest larger volumes.

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