5 April 2002

Growers need to meet demands of spud processors

Processing potato markets

are booming, pre-pack

waning. Andrew Swallow

asks Abbey Produce

managing director Simon

Bowen how should growers

react to this rapidly

changing marketplace?

TARGETING potato production to a pre-determined customers requirements from day one is the key to profit from growing the crop, according to Abbey Produce managing director Simon Bowen.

"You can no longer take the view that if it wont pack perhaps it will process. Growers have to get off the marketing fence and make a decision about which market they are aiming for."

Failed pre-pack material is unlikely to meet the tighter quality specifications most processors now demand, he warns.

But the good news for growers is that processing markets are proliferating, opening up new opportunities, such as baby roasts, potato wedges and ready meals.

Growers should be proactive in seeking these outlets, says Mr Bowen. They should discuss requirements in detail with merchants and processors and make realistic decisions about the ability to deliver suitable material. But remember that land, labour, management and machinery constraints need to be considered.

Size grading is becoming more important to make the most of crop value and something which few individual growers will be able to do to the accurate standards required, as well as managing separate tuber sizes in the store to deliver the service level demanded.

"Grower groups are required to do a lot more size grading, sending different sizes of potato to different factories for different products. To do that well, to specification and without damage, is a challenge."

Managing the crop to get the biggest output in the highest value size band is the growers department, he adds. "You may need to change varieties, seed rates, fertiliser, planting systems or even storage."

The tighter market requirements also mean on-farm quality control is crucial. As a minimum, growers should be taking a 10kg sample from every load delivered and performing appropriate size, damage, dry matter and fry colour tests.

"It is not time-consuming . One sample an hour off an 8-10t/hour grading line is a good standard to aim for.

"Should you find something that is not right, correct whatever is causing the problem and phone your customer and ask them what you should do with the load."

That is where a grower and marketing group such as Abbey can have an advantage over contracting direct with a processor or pre-packer, says Mr Bowen.

"There will be out-of-grade or rejected loads which we can usually do something with. But growers must aim to hit the target specification first time."

Planting a dual-purpose variety as an each way bet for processing or pre-pack should be avoided, he says. "Growing Mar-is Piper is fine but if you sit on the fence and do not target your production to an identified market you will come unstuck." &#42

Processing trend

The British Potato Council predicts processed potato product consumption will nearly match fresh potato sales for the first time this year at 54kg/head from the 2001 crop. However, BPC economist Guy Gagen does not believe it is a sign that the declining trend in fresh consumption has accelerated.

"If good quality potatoes are in short supply then this tends to be reflected in the fresh market. This year, given adequate supply, it is possible fresh consumption could recover. But I am convinced that processed potato sales are likely to exceed fresh around 2004. "Growers should respond to this by concentrating on growing less crop better. That way they can beat imports on quality and they need to develop closer, less adversarial marketing relationships with merchants."