Growers quit but potato acreage is steady

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IN THE aftermath of last year’s difficult growing and harvesting season, almost one in ten of Britain’s potato growers decided to call it a day, but, according to Rob Clayton of the Potato Council, the 2013 acreage of potatoes in the country has not fallen.

Speaking at the Potatoes in Practice day outside Dundee, he said that the number of growers in Britain this season would only be just above 2,000, a drop of 200 from 2012, but the 3 per cent of the national acreage they grew has been snapped up by larger-scale growers.

“It is the smaller producers who are dropping out, feeling that enough is enough and not getting sufficient returns on the enterprise for the risks they have to take. On preliminary figures for this year, the acreage seems to be similar to last year’s level.”

Earlier this year, Clayton had speculated that there might be increased plantings on account of high prices for the 2012 crop but this did not seem to have happened.

On yield, he said that it was too soon to predict what the national potato crop would be as he had seen some very poor crops with the tops hardly meeting in the drills but he had also seen some potentially very good crops.

There was some good news yesterday for those who have remained in the potato-growing business, with Dr Stuart Wale, from Scotland’s Rural College, stating that one of the main bacterial diseases that affects the crop is in retreat this year.

Blackleg, which infects both the haulm and tubers, has been increasingly important in recent wet summers but the bacterium has not prospered in this dry summer and infestation levels are well below those of last year. Growing crop seed potato inspections, which are near completion, have produced few health problems compared with last year when a percentage was downgraded because of blackleg.

Wale also dismissed suggestions that the mechanical pulverisation of haulm to stop growth could contribute to blackleg spread. Provided it is done in dry weather, he did not see a problem.

He also hoped that specialist seed producers would harvest their crops as early as possible, as the longer they remained in the ground, the greater the danger of tuber diseases emerging.

Yesterday also saw the announcement of the first potato monitor farm in Scotland and, fittingly for a sector which relies a great deal on collaboration between farmers who let out land to growers, it involves two farmers.

Danny and Alison Milne, Demperston, Auchtermuchty, annually let out ground to John Weir, Lacesston, Gateside, who grows a total of 150 acres of potatoes both on his own farm and on rented ground.

Monitor farms operate on the basis of inviting other farmers along to contribute to discussions on various topics ranging from husbandry to marketing but this one will also specifically look at the collaboration needed between the farmer letting out land and the grower-merchant.

Weir said: “The ability to rent land for potatoes is vital in a long-term rotational context. I believe this project will help forge a better understanding of what is needed to make this work for both sides.”