Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Industry must look overseas to learn lessons for potatoes

March 31, 2017 by  
Filed under Crops

Centre pivot Idaho

British farmers have much to learn from potato growers overseas, says Nuffield scholar Rufus Pilgrim.

Sometimes you can learn a lot in seemingly unlikely places. I met a grower in the Limpopo, near the border with Botswana, for example, who couldn’t understand how we served our market all year round if we only harvested potatoes for four months of the year.

In South Africa, you can plant and harvest year round – there are always fresh potatoes. The concept of securing stocks to serve your customers outside these four months was alien to him. How much to keep back? What’s the price going to be? Who absorbs the risk?

I manage the fresh potato packing operation for family-owned R S Cockerill in York. We also co-ordinate a significant volume of supply into the crisping industry. A Nuffield Scholarship gave me an opportunity to look at what others are doing to remain competitive in turbulent times.

Supply chains

What could I learn from studying potato supply chains in Europe, Africa and North America that I could use to ensure my own supply of potatoes over the next 20 years?

It would be hard to replicate the quality of our fresh market with imports at similar values, but for process production our nemesis is the French fry producers of Northern Europe. Global demand for French fries is growing rapidly and we import over 500,000t of French fries a year into the UK.

We cannot currently compete with their lower costs of production. Very much export driven, northern European producers use higher yielding and disease resistant varieties, and efficient processing technology. The need to increase productivity from a given land area is a global one.

The potato is the basis for food in many parts of the world. I visited Kenya, which has 800,000 small farmers growing 150,000ha of potatoes. Lack of quality inputs, poor rotation, generations of replanting, and extreme disease pressure, result in an average yield of 10t/ha.


Not enough when you hear that the population of Africa is set to double to 2bn people by 2050. Researchers aim to lift this yield figure to at least 25t/ha through quality seed production and education. There is an opportunity for the UK to export our technology and expertise to help.

What is clear across Europe and North America is the breadth of collaboration and integration to deliver a competitive offering for consumers. This ranged from smaller growers sharing resources in the Netherlands and Belgium, to grower owned packing operations in the USA.

The old adage ‘Yield is king’ has never been truer, but in North America there are exceptions to this. Prince Edward Island in Canada has a long standing reputation for quality seed and ware potato production. There is no irrigation; the average yield is 32t/ha.

The same variety, it should be added that Russet Burbank dominates the American fresh and processing scene, yields 45t/ha in the Mid-West. The bulk of the US population is east of the Mississippi River; proximity to market for the Canadians competes with the cost of logistics from the US Mid-West.


This has not stopped the Canadians desire to drive productivity. I met retired potato grower, Joe Brennan who is now chairing the Canadian Potato Industry Transformation Initiative. Involving private and public stakeholders, the initiative is looking at agronomy, inputs and technology to improve productivity.

Rufus Pilgrim is commercial director for  R S Cockerill (York) Ltd. He can be contacted at rufus.pilgrim@cockerill.co.uk or via Twitter at @rufus_pilgrim.