25 July 1997

Falling returns prompt drop in potato acreage

POTATO growers, disillusioned by recent low returns, have cut the acreage devoted to the crop.

First estimates of 1997 plantings from the newly-formed British Potato Council show an area of 142,500ha (352,118 acres), down nearly 7% on last years final figure.

Market values highlight the pressure growers are under. On Wednesday (July 23), the gross return from earlies stood at £2516/ha (£1018/acre). At the same time in 1995, the figure was £4170/ha (£1688/acre).

At these levels it is hard to be optimistic, says David Lowrey of the BPC. But prices could be "turning the corner".

The lower planted acreage, together with blight outbreaks and reports of lower tuber numbers, have generated some optimism, with the prospect of tighter supplies once maincrop liftings get under way.

Reports of blight have already boosted the paper market. John Bull of BDF Commodities says they pushed April futures up 50% in the space of two weeks. On Tuesday (July 22) they stood at £81/t.

But while the disease seems set to hit yields and storage quality – and may push the physical market up eventually – it could first prompt some weakening, as farmers may not be keen to store stocks, says Mr Bull.

Furthermore, some traders are sceptical about the accuracy of the BPC figures. "First estimates are treated with a pinch of salt," says one. "Plantings will probably be down, but not by as much as this."

On Jersey, meanwhile, growers are in a rather more bullish mood. Plantings there are up over 5%.

Peter Bastion of the Jersey Potato Council says the price premium achieved by the Jersey Royal and the high level of customer acceptance have been behind the increase. &#42