Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Big issues in the potato sector are coming home to roost this summer

Potato crops are suffering badly this year
Potato crops are suffering badly this year

Richard Hackett

I began last month's article by quoting Warren Buffet and his explanation that systemic weaknesses become more apparent during times of trouble (or as he said, 'only when the tide goes out do you discover who has been swimming naked').

The continuing drought conditions have provided further evidence of the systemic weaknesses in Irish agriculture, particularly our potato and vegetable industry.

Potato crops are suffering badly this year. Yes, they are suffering from the drought, but the drought is also revealing how poorly structured the industry is.

The dominance of one variety -Rooster - is a big impediment to developing the industry and making it more resilient to weather events.

Rooster isn't particularly drought prone, but its late maturity is going to be an issue this year.

Its tendency to exhibit any skin blemish to maximum effect will be a problem as common scab is prevalent.

More importantly, the late maturity of the crop and the prolonged growing season is going to make planning and measurement of the national crop very difficult.

As we approach the autumn, Rooster crops are only beginning their bulking up phase. They have yet to fully bulk up, they need more time to mature, and more time for harvesting. We will have no idea of the national tonnage for next year until November at the earliest.

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At that stage of the season, the supermarket procurement managers will already have their work done, in getting the price to suit themselves. Prices are dictated well before a demand/supply curve can even be started.

No other product line is dominated by one variety for so long. Cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, lettuce have a succession of varieties suitable for particular times of the year.

There are many varieties of potatoes designed especially for processing into crisps or chips.

The advantage this brings is that some seasons will suit some varieties, other seasons might allow other varieties to excel. More irons in the fire, so to speak.

One characteristic all modern processing varieties have is early maturity. They mature in about 120-140 days after planting; in contrast Rooster needs 160 days. That extra month is critical in a country like ours where seasons can often be cut short.

Another advantage these varieties have in a year like this is that they are generally bred for the Dutch, German and Belgian markets and are well capable of handling a drought.

Rooster as a variety gained dominance the late 1990s. It was a hit as it was very recognisable by the consumer no matter where it was sold. It was also marketed strongly.

What we need now is a focus on an Irish brand of potatoes rather than a variety of potatoes. The confidence of the consumer will be based on the brand, not the variety. This will allow for more flexibility in production programmes, storage regimes, different growing season etc.

Advisors

Another weakness the weather has shown up this year is the shortage of good advisors in the potato and vegetable industry.

Most advisors in crop production are embedded with the supply industry, primarily focussed on sales targets. Most of these shy away from high value crops.

The absence of good advice is reflected in the number of growers seen 'irrigating' crops with slurry tankers.

Irrigation in itself is always a questionable undertaking, -more produce is lost by irrigation than rescued, even in a year like this. Taking water from streams is very questionable from a fisheries perspective and once a crop gets irrigated, it stops searching for water, so irrigation will have to continue to avoid it going backwards.

But irrigating by tanker is really out on its own as a futile exercises. It isn't so much a problem of agronomy, more a problem of basic maths.

To keep the maths in old money, an inch of water across an acre is equivalent to 22,000 gallons an acre. Take a relative humidity of the mid 60s, and soil temperature of 28C and you're looking at a 50pc loss to volatilisation. So of the 22,000 gallons applied, the best you can hope for is 11,0000 gallons actually hitting the ground.

Using an average slurry tanker, you require 10 loads an acre to get that volume of water. At a conservative estimate of 10 tonnes per tractor/tanker combination, that's an accumulated 100 tonnes an acre.

It's the equivalent of driving a Panzer tank across the field and expecting the crop to thank you for it. Yet this practice was seen all over the country in recent weeks.

What I have noticed in the crops this year is that potatoes grown in ley ground are performing very well.

This is not a Eureka finding - we've known this since the 18th century, but high organic matter levels which hold moisture certainly were worth the effort in a year like this.

For every hectare of potatoes we grow, we now have nearly 500ha agricultural area available so finding fresh land to grow potatoes shouldn't really be a problem. But it doesn't really work like. Grass/tillage rotations are a thing of the past given the pressures of intensive cropping, land ownership, land leasing structures. However, if we are to continue to have a viable industry, we will have to move away from worn tillage land and get more ley ground into production.

If we are going to establish a more sustainable potato industry, we have to meet the existing markets for peeling, chipping, seed and salad potatoes; we have to widen the variety offering for table ware; we have to have more boots on the ground in terms of basic agronomic advice, and we have to bring a lot more fresh land in to the mix.

More importantly, we have to market our potatoes. It all has to be sold at the end of the day.

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

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