24 July 2002

Customer communication is needed to up spud returns

POTATO growers should focus on customer requirements and input management rather than fighting for the best price a tonne.

That is if they want to maximise returns and ensure some stability in an increasingly volatile market.

"Greater grower co-operation and commitment to the processor/packer is the key to sustainable potato production," says Simon Bowen, group agronomy manager for potato specialist Solanum.

"Growers not linked to the customer will find themselves increasingly on the periphery of a fast developing industry," says Mr Bowen. "A lot of growers want to have their cake and eat it, but if they are not plugged in they will find themselves out in the cold.

"An us and them mentality is not the way forward. Growers must start negotiating now with a processor/packer for next year. Growers who have committed to a contract tonnage can tap into production and marketing advice, as well as benefit from block sales, logistics and have some preferential treatment for out of specialisation crops. Those that have not face an uncertain future."

Too many growers have an old-fashioned attitude and are prepared to risk the open market rather than fixing contracts, Mr Bowen believes. That is fine while demand outstrips supply, but when growers not under contract cannot find a market the situation becomes very serious.

Growers also need to match inputs to the end market and budget accordingly, he adds. "We help growers plan inputs right through to end market requirement."

Land, seed and irrigation can account for up to 50% of total input costs, with machinery and labour accounting for a further 25%, Mr Bowen estimates. Land and variety selection should, therefore, be a high priority when addressing input costs.

"Input costs can vary between £1200 and £1500/acre, the lower end being for processing and the upper end for pre-pack. It is essential to align costs to crop requirement."

At the same time as offering agronomic advice, Mr Bowen recognises that buyers must be made aware of the problems associated with growing potatoes. That is particularly so where costs can be added such as during storage – typically 10% wastage from long-term storage – with weight loss issues, pest and diseases and physiological changes. Such costs should be taken into account when negotiating contracts, he advises. &#42

Get in touch with the markets to survive, rather than fighting for the last pound on price, urges Solanums Simon Bowen.

Blight costs

"Blight control is the most costly agchem input besides nematicides," warns Mr Bowen. "Selecting the wrong product can add at least £50/ha to the input costs. We see this as the difference between focused and unfocused advice." With its curative activity Curzate (cymoxanil + mancozeb) can provide the hub of the blight programme irrespective of end market, he says. "Costing as little as £8-9.50/ha it provides an effective insurance against a devastating disease. Do not underestimate the potential of blight. This is one input that must not be compromised. Other inputs might vary slightly depending on the market."