Farm Ireland

Tuesday 22 May 2018

Big issues coming home to roost for our potato growers

Gerry Mulligan from Mohill, Co Leitrim is one of the many farmers in the west and north counting the cost of the recent bad weather which has led to cattle being housed early. Photo Brian Farrell

Richard Hackett

If you ever venture over to Eastern Europe, you will find that when the good citizens are looking for a quality starch food to go with their meat and vegetables, they don't talk about the potato, but reach for the 'Irish potato'.

This is an example of the strong relationship we as a nation have to this basic of foodstuffs. You would think that with this strong relationship, at the very least, we would have a supply chain of potatoes that would be at least comprehensive, if not vibrant and progressive.

Alas this is far from the case. The potato industry in Ireland is anything but vibrant, most of it isn't even Irish.

Any review of the potato industry (and there has been no shortage of them) inevitably blames the reduction in potato consumption on the rise of 'pasta and rice' and 'hectic lifestyles'. These conclusions are usually accompanied by calls for more marketing and further reviews.

While there is no doubt that there are many external factors working against the consumption of potatoes in Ireland, there are plenty of internal factors working against the sector as well.

There is no doubt that when the history of the potato crop in Ireland is written, the impact that one variety Rooster, bred in Oakpark by Harry Kehoe, had on the industry will be writ large.

As a variety it has its weaknesses, but it is a fantastic all-rounder, readily recognisable and has a strong brand following.

But when the only 'table potato' on offer by every retail unit in the country for the entire year is one variety, we have a problem. Agronomically, it's a big problem.

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As well as the risk of one variety breaking down to a new pest or disease, more practically, the variety Rooster is very late maturing. It's a scary thought that as we approach the middle of September, the entire crop required to feed this country from now until next July is still sitting out in fields, not even desiccated in most instances.

If the weather continues for another month as it has done for the last month, we have a big problem with the crop - we won't be able to get it all dug before winter.

More importantly, we also have a problem with only 'offering' one variety to the consumer - it equals boredom and stasis.

Consumers are constantly been 'wowed' and bombarded with the latest super foods.

All the better if it comes from some far corner of some far flung rainforest.

What chance does the bag of spuds have against exotic foodstuffs?

The route to market of potatoes from imported seed to grower to packer to supermarket has been enforced by the supermarkets over the last 30 years.

This single supply chain is another weakness to the industry.

Currently all risk is borne by the grower.

If a variety has a skin blemish, or doesn't yield or can't be harvested, the packer/supermarket can shrug their shoulders and walk away, the grower bears all the costs.

The grower in turn becomes very conservative as they must to protect their business, so they only grow rooster as it's the best chance it will be sold.

Also as only the strong growers can take the risk, the supply becomes increasingly consolidated to a very small number of very large growers, again not very sustainable in the long term.

For example, take salad potatoes.

This product offering has grown hugely in recent years, and has achieved a significant market share. It's practically all imported produce however.

Teagasc have grasped this nettle and have implemented a demonstration programme to encourage the growth of salad potatoes in Ireland.

Salad potatoes are very pernickety and are high risk. If the only route to market is through the existing supply structure, it's a doomed project.

Growers will not take on the risk of growing the crop if they are left holding the baby of a high risk product.

Supermarkets won't get enough supply to justify the switch from imported to Irish sourced material, and the stasis continues.

Without some real 'knocking together of heads', and some real innovation being implemented, the sector is doomed, Irish potato or not.

Richard Hackett is an agronomist based in north County Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA.

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