FIRST TASTE OF AMERICAN AGGRESSION WINS UK SPUD GROWERS APPROVAL

WE ALL enjoy a look over the hedge at our neighbours” crops, but how about a look “over the pond” at production and marketing techniques in the USA?

That was the chance two young UK potato growers had earlier this year, thanks to a BPC-sponsored trip to take part in an annual Potato Industry Leadership Programme organised by the US Potato Board and National Potato Council.

Much of the programme is aimed at developing personal skills that should help the delegates become ambassadors for the industry in years to come.

But it also gave a useful insight into where the UK industry might learn something from Uncle Sam’s approach, says Dougie Russell, of Muirton, North Berwick.

“The American growers are generally more in tune with their markets and have a better idea of where the industry is going,” he suggests.

Countering the effect of the Atkins diet is a key concern, and one which the NPC is spending $4.4m a year on alone.

Admittedly, its budgets are much bigger than BPC’s, but it highlights how UK growers and their representative bodies could be more aggressive in promoting potatoes, he believes.

“We are slightly lucky that our consumers are not quite as gullible,” he says.

The UK industry is ahead in terms of marketing fresh produce, with better quality on the shelf and variety “brands” commanding a premium. US sales are simply whites, reds or russets, he says.

“We can’t promote everything by variety because there are too many, but we have to maintain the customer”s knowledge of certain varieties old and new, otherwise how can we create added value niche markets?”

 Simply selling white or red potatoes creates a price-driven commodity market, a trend that has to be fought at all costs and it is the potato industry’s job to do it, he adds.

 “The supermarkets have a million and one lines to work with – why should they promote potatoes ahead of other products? As an industry we need to unite on this and take the initiative.”

 Packaging should carry recipe ideas and presentation could be much more innovative, he believes. One idea the delegates came up with on the course was a “six-pack” carton of bakers.

 “We need quicker, more convenient ways of cooking potatoes without jeopardising quality. Basically, the marketing needs sexing up.”

While the US industry co-operates in its marketing initiatives such as the anti-Atkins campaign, co-operation at farm level could be much less, judging by the comments of fellow delegates, says Mr Russell.

“One 3000-acre grower said it was like a fight to the death with neighbours, each waiting for the next to go out of business so they could take on the land, expand and spread their own costs.”

 That aggressive attitude extends to overseas marketing. “Basically, any market is seen as fair game, and that includes Europe. We were told a Pringles factory in Holland was supplied almost entirely from the US a couple of seasons ago.”

 Faced with such competition in the processing sector, be it from the US or Europe, it makes sense for UK growers to increase co-operation at the operational level to cut production costs, says Mr Russell.

“We would all like to retain our independence and be able to do all the jobs ourselves, but this has to change,” he acknowledges. T

The course also focused on negotiation and political lobbying skills, including three days in Washington coinciding with the annual NPC summit.

US senators seem closer to their roots and key industries in the state they represent than UK MPs are with their constituencies, he adds.

On the negotiating side, knowing as much as possible about the person or business you are negotiating with was highlighted.

“It was suggested that you buy shares in the processor you are dealing with. That way you will know what their return on investment aspirations are. If they expect to make 15%, then holding out for a price that allows you to make 15% return would seem pretty reasonable for a grower with average production costs.”

Be wary of fieldsmen was another message from the US. “It was suggested that they are information gatherers for the processor, reporting back what quality/storage pressures you may be under, thereby influencing price.”

Mr Russell’s own view is that UK growers do need to unite in marketing groups with sufficient muscle to hold their own in negotiations, but that there must also be co-operation with the end customer, be that processor or supermarket.

The farm’s own business is well on the way to doing that, with a proportion of its pre-pack crops marketed through the Border Premium Potatoes co-operative and processing crops through the East Lothian Potatoes grower group.