Farm Ireland

Tuesday 11 December 2018

Opinion: When are we going to put the Irish back into 'Irish' potatoes?

Contractor Alan Lucas harvested 60 acres of Justina maze crop - working out at 27t/ac - for Fred Salter, Ballon, Co Carlow. Photo Roger Jones.

Richard Hackett

I recently brought up the topic of potato production and some of the problems that lie within that sector. It's easy enough to point out flaws in this, and indeed any sector. The problem arises when you go about suggest solutions to these problems.

The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) is the UK body charged with promotion of UK agriculture.

The section on potatoes however, strikes a very apologetic tone, admitting the UK is dependent on imports from mainland Europe to meet requirements. 'We are doing our best' is the tone.

The UK grows about 139,000ha of potatoes for a population 65 million. That would work out at about 9,700ha for a population of 4.5 million.

We in Ireland on the other hand, tell all and sundry about our wonderful potato industry, how unique it is, how 'we luv our spudz' that kind of guff. Yet our production area is 8,900ha, for a population of 4.5 million, 2,000 acres less than the UK equivalent per capita area. That in a nutshell is the problem.

We are more dependent on imports to feed ourselves than the UK is, but we prefer to ignore the facts and to believe the marketing spin about Ireland being 'the food island'. How do we go about correcting the problems in the Irish potato sector? Well I have four suggestions.

1 Acknowledge the problem

Production area is reducing, sales are dropping, innovation is non-existent, stagnation is the order the day. It's time to forget the spin and get to work on the reality. The industry is slipping away and unless or until all the stakeholders, or actors in the supply chain are brought round the table, it's not going to improve.

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2 More variety

The dominance of the variety Rooster has to be addressed. It matures too late, it is prone to skin blemishes, but more importantly, it is, for all intents and purposes, the only offering we have to the consumer. It's getting boring.

Fresh potatoes are the only major carbohydrate grown in Ireland
Fresh potatoes are the only major carbohydrate grown in Ireland

We need to strongly market a companion variety that is 'second early' maturing, stores easily, white skinned that won't show up every blemish, yields well and most importantly, eats well.

There are plenty of varieties that hit that spec. Pick one and start marketing.

Or better still, forget the variety, develop a brand of readily identifiable packs that the consumer knows will meet their requirements.

The potatoes in the bag can be different varieties, according to season, time of year, regions, market fluctuation etc. When it's on the plate no one worries about the variety. As long as it does what it says on the tin, (or bag), consumers will purchase.

3 Cash in on our chips

A third suggestion is that we have to retake the fresh chip market away from UK imports towards home produced. It's a ready-made market on our doorstep and needs consistent supply all year round.

Harvesting potatoes on the Meade Potato Company farm in Co Meath
Harvesting potatoes on the Meade Potato Company farm in Co Meath

In fairness, there is the beginning of this on the ground already, with some very exciting varieties available to finally attack the dominance of UK varieties.

However, this seems to be done on the basis of ­discounting this Irish produce, which is nonsense, given that the quality, provenance and 'story' is much better with home grown well selected varieties, than imported produce.

The fresh market chip shops are rightly flying their Irish credentials, it is time to put it up to them to supply chips from Irish potatoes. There are very few actors involved in supplying this market, it shouldn't be too hard to knock some heads together.

4 Use our own seed

The final suggestion is so obvious it's nearly silly to have to point it out. Not only is the market readily available, we are the market.

There is also so few actors in this sector there is nearly not enough of them to crack their heads together.

The Irish seed industry is a shell of its former self, and there is absolutely no scientific or structural reason why our 9,000ha can't be grown using Irish seed. But it is not, we have allowed the market be completely dominated by imported seed.

This has to change, from the perspective of a 'new' market opportunity, or from the perspective of food security and provenance.

The potato industry has still the potential to become a very viable niche of the overall agricultural industry.

Over the last 30 years, very, very few in the industry have covered themselves in glory. Mistrust is and was the order of the day. However, production costs, falling consumption and supermarket domination have cleared out the industry to such an extent that it is a blank canvas ripe for improvement.

We should seize the opportunity and let the industry reach its potential and become a sector we can all be proud of, and put the Irish back into Irish potato.

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

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