Potato growers deserve our respect – it’s a stressful enterprise and there are easier ways of making money, says Fen Tiger.
I have limited knowledge of the potato sector – and even less experience growing them. But being in semi-retirement, I found my knowledge increasing this autumn as I helped out with the potato harvest.
As I worked, I listened intently to the growers around me discussing the previous 2019 harvest. All agreed it was a season to forget, with difficult lifting conditions and the price then plummeting due to the coronavirus lockdown.
Before coronavirus, many people were expecting a potato shortage. But the closure of food outlets throughout Europe put an end to that – leaving some growers unable to shift in-store crops other than by roadside sales.
That said, very few growers had reduced their acreage. In fact, some had even increased it for this year’s crop. The dry spring of 2020 at first was welcomed. It got the season off to a good start and made planting easier.
Ups and downs
But the prolonged lack of rain which followed meant those growers without irrigation soon started to worry. Almost half the crop lacks access to water so when a decent amount of rainfall finally fell in June, it was welcomed by everyone.
As September approached, growers were looking forward to harvest full of hope and expectation. Crops were looking reasonable and a repeat of last year’s challenging season looked increasingly unlikely.
But some processors are still working their way through their contracted supplies with little tonnage purchased on the free buy markets. Growers continue to shift spuds at £80-140 per tonne, with cheaper potatoes being moved due to storage concerns.
Which brings me to something which I fail to understand. And a question to which I can’t find the answer – from any grower. With most farmers selling at least a proportion of their tonnage on contract, what is the breakeven price?
Big money crop
The costs quoted to me just for growing the crop from planting through to harvest are eye-watering. In storage, those costs rise further because some products to reduce in-store growth have been banned and replaced with more expensive alternatives.
One grower who puts everything possible into his final costs down to the last office paperclip said a £200/t price was break even on his 800ha. Another large grower quoted £165/t and a smaller grower with less than 12ha quoted £130/t.
One grower who would only say he was growing a reduced area this year but expected his tonnage to increase was hoping to increase his profit margin by reducing crop losses – in other words better management across fewer acres.
But I am still no further forward. Some of the farmers were using their own land to grow potatoes. But most rented. Some were travelling 50 miles from their main store. Rents varied from £675/ha to £1000/ha. It’s big money.
Anxiety and admiration
The only conclusion I came to was that potatoes involve lots of physical and mental stress. And it is taking its toll. One grower had been rushed to hospital after slumping over his steering wheel. One had heart concerns and the other anxiety.
That stress can only increase during another wet autumn with low prices and the temporary closure of the food service industry. Social distancing measures will concern customers and reduce demand further.
And with changing tastes in food, the humble spud is struggling against the flavour and variety of more global dishes. You have to admire the growers for their belief in the industry and its future.
When things go their way, potato growers make a healthy profit. But this only seems to happen one year in five. Easier crops make less money but it is the well-being that concerns me.
Like us all, I hope they are able to take a well-earned rest over Christmas and have a safe and rewarding New Year.