Farm Ireland

Saturday 24 March 2018

Tillage: Why I have a chip on my shoulder about roosters

Roosters are seen as the ideal 'table potato'. Photo: Getty Images.
Roosters are seen as the ideal 'table potato'. Photo: Getty Images.

Richard Hackett

There is a noticeable stretch in the evenings, but it will be a long time before field work can recommence.

Hopefully this time is being used at farm level to plan ahead for the coming season, but a bit of forward planning at a more macro, or industry level, would not go astray either.

Many sectors are suffering from a deficit of planning, but I think that the potato industry in particular is suffering from a complete lack of policy input.

There is an argument, which has some validity, that the more a sector is 'designed', the more likely it is to fail and that the best way for a sector to survive and thrive is to let it alone to react to market forces.

Unfortunately this approach does not work for a sector that is so seasonal and so susceptible to the vagaries of supply and demand responses.

At a macro level, there still is a huge demand for potatoes in Ireland, and we have the soils, the weather, the infrastructure and the expertise in which to meet this demand, so what can be the problem?

The main problem with the industry is that it has turned into a one horse race.

The industry is now all about growing one variety - the rooster to supply supermarkets with 'table' potatoes.

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The many other market demands are being supplied from overseas.

For a country that is so busy clapping itself on the back as being 'the food nation', there is not much sign of it in this sector.

So what are these outlets? First of all it's seed. We are growing approximately 9,000 ha of potatoes, which has a requirement of c. 22,000 tonnes of seed, which in turn requires c.1,000ha to grow this seed.

Unfortunately we are not growing that level of seed production.

The vast majority of certified seed used in Ireland is of Scottish origin.

The second outlet is the chip market. There is no frozen chip manufacturer in Ireland, so it follows that no Irish potatoes are available as frozen chips. This is a huge potential outlet.

However, a frozen chip factory costs a lot of money and Irish manufacturers have not, to date, been able to cope with the scale of UK or Continental European factories.

Like so many sectors, Irish produce is being expected to be produced at a niche cost level, but sold at a commodity price level, and that doesn't work.

The biggest disgrace in this corner of the sector however, is the fresh chip market.

Every town or small village in Ireland has a fast food outlet and most of these outlets source their chips as whole potatoes and prepare them as chips themselves.

Negative impact

This is a huge outlet for potatoes, but again, the vast majority of these potatoes are sourced, not from Ireland, but from the UK.

Even on the supermarket shelf, there is only one variety presented; Rooster.

It is a versatile variety that has gained market acceptance, but when no other options are available, this has to have a negative impact on consumption levels.

There is a plethora of other varieties that are suitable for the Irish palette.

Besides the fact that many are easier to grow and easier to meet market specifications, at consumer level they also taste different and look different.

However, there is no development being put into new varieties that could be added to the supply offering.

Surely there is a market for more specific varieties to go alongside Rooster, targeted as being specific for chips, or baking, or seasonally available earlies?

There are rows and rows of different types of pasta available on the supermarket shelf, all different shapes and sizes but fundamentally the same. Is it time to stop moaning and beat these competitors at their own game?

Everyone involved in the industry needs to consider why it is the way it is.

Many initiatives have been taken, but generally they collapse in a mushroom cloud of argument and mistrust.

Sooner or later all the rattles will be thrown out of the pram and the adults will have to take over the discussions.

I think it makes economic, environmental, logistical and moral sense to meet the wide range of available home-grown demand before expending huge amounts of capital looking for new export markets for a narrow range of products like milk or beef.

Surely it would be better for all if these discussions were held sooner rather than later?

Dr. Richard Hackett is an Agronomist based in North County Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA.

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