18 July 1998

THE customer is king. Even when the customer is a multiple buyer setting its own quality and produce standards, and no matter how out of step with farming practice those standards may seem.

Of course, it may seem unfair that next door can use an agrochemical your buyer says cant be applied on your potatoes. Just remember why you did the deal with your buyer in the first place. You wanted to make money; so did he. If you are not getting what you wanted, whose fault is that?

After the event is not the time to grumble about the harshness of the pre-pack or the constraints imposed by the buyer. Most trading arrangements include a dialogue between seller and buyer during which the ground rules are set. If either party finds it difficult to agree, no deal is struck.

As in finding a marriage partner, there has to be negotiation, accommodation – and perhaps some experimentation – before arriving at a relationship that suits all. At least in the potato world the option of a go-between in the shape of a co-operative or packing station is there to give growers some muscle.

With two-thirds of ware potatoes passing through supermarket hands, its a sector to be ignored at the growers peril. Yes, some supermarkets can seem irrationally committed to squeezing every last penny from the producers return – often because the potato buyer is seeking to propel himself upward in the stores hierarchy.

But there are developments in multiple thinking from which growers can benefit by choosing the right partner. After years of treating potatoes as a commodity, supermarkets first woke up to variety differentiation when customers discovered the flavour of older, but scarce varieties such as Kerrs Pink and Duke of York. Now they are working on regional branding of potatoes to allow housewives to choose locally-produced spuds.

This raises possibilities of special deals for maincrop growers, as well as those already put in place for producers of early and salad crops. And then theres organics…

Hands up anyone who groaned "not again"! Dont blame the messenger. Those big customers out there are currently bombarding their shoppers with point-of-sale information on organics and special promotions for the summer months. Its all business potentially worth hundreds of millions of pounds – forward thinking growers will get their fare share and reward.

Duke of York being harvested on July 3 for supermarket sale 24 hours later.

Buying director gets his boots dirty. p6

The tell-tale signs of black scurf. p12