5 December 1997

Crisping rejects add to gloom in potato sector

By Andrew Blake

CONTRACTS to grow potatoes for crisping are under the spotlight as rejection rates rise following a difficult growing season.

Blight, blackleg, bruising and early frost mean waste levels are at least 5% higher than last year in all sectors, says the BPC. Rejection rates have inevitably risen as a result, a spokesperson acknowledges. "But we cant put a figure on it."

Growers on contract to crispers seem worst affected. Several are seriously considering whether to grow for that market again. "There is great concern over agreeing contracts for 1998," says John Clark, a Notts grower and chairman of the Processed Potato Growers Group.

He has no firm evidence that factory acceptance criteria have tightened this season. "But standards are being applied more vigorously each year," he notes.

Stephen Uttridge of Doncaster- based merchant Higgins Agriculture blames pressure from big retailers. Defect rates of up to 40% in the crop this season sit uneasily beside the 5% standard for defects in supermarket crisps, he notes.

"There are lots of potatoes out there this season that do not meet standard or get anywhere near it."

Several years ago crisp maker Walkers required growers to carry more of the risk for the stored crop. That trend is being followed by other companies, says Mr Clark.

Much less happy is Jean Morris who farms in partnership with son Leonard at South Kyme Fen, Lincs. She believes dual standards are being applied after being left with much of her first-time Saturna in the ground after frost allegedly damaged fry colour. "We always used to grow Record and swapped very reluctantly."

But a neighbouring grower and marketeer has sampled the crop and believes it has no particular problems. He is particularly critical of one processing firm. "They cant see their way to pay a viable price, but can pay the Spice Girls the equivalent of £10/t to appear on the crisp packet."

Former barometer grower Guy Tindale got his contracted Erntesoltz crispers away well in early August, but admits to having second thoughts about continuing with the job. "They have dropped the price and unlike the chipping market there is no bonus system." A requirement that all output should be washed in future reinforces his view.

&#8226 Richard Watson-Jones, chairman of the NFUs potato committee confirms rejections and discounts are posing on-farm problems this season. But loosely worded contracts are often to blame, he believes.

Growers must make sure all aspects are covered, he advises. "For example suitable for crisping needs defining." In a bid to speed that process the NFU has opened talks with the Potato Processors Association.

CRISPING CONCERNS

&#8226 Unusual season highlights risks.

&#8226 Rejection levels uncertain.

&#8226 Variable intake decisions.

&#8226 Standards set to tighten.

Are crisping potatoes still worth growing?High rejection rates this year mean more growers think the answer might be No…