12 April 1996

Host views spud future

By Robert Davies

FUTURE potato production will be in the hands of fewer, very professional growers who have the marketing expertise to cope with the aftermath of deregulation.

This is the view of Andrew Collier, host for the Potato Marketing Boards swan-song spring planting demonstration.

He expects plantings to rise by 10%+ post-quota, resulting in the lifting of a massive surplus in the first good season. He reckons the impact of this, the capital investment required for modern machinery, and high annual growing costs will combine to push some smaller growers out of the industry. But the main cause of an exodus is likely to be the evolution of a much more discerning market.

"People who just grow potatoes, rather than specific varieties targeted at particular markets, wont be able to sell their crops," Mr Collier forecasts. "Survival will be a question of growing a high quality product, and keeping your eyes on the market."

He anticipates being one of the survivors. Substantial money is being invested in new machinery at Home Farm, Ingestre, Stafford. This demonstrates his commitment to at least another decade of potato growing. Marketing strategy has also been reviewed. For the first time 36ha (90 acres) of his total 64.75ha (160 acres) of potatoes are being grown on contract.

"After two good years, when I would have lost money on contract, it is too much to expect a third.

"I wanted to work with professionals who would be better at marketing than me in a bad year. The contract is with MBM for Pentland Dell to go to McCains. In future I hope to grow 50% of the crop on full price contracts, with the rest being sold through a number of outlets used in the past, such as MBM, Dalgety and Worths."

The Pentland Dell has replaced Piper this year. A 6.8ha (17-acre) area of Record is being grown under contract to the Beeson Group, an MBM subsidiary. The other main varieties are Nadine and Estima. The aim is to be able to supply a high quality sample for packers or processors.

Only Super Elite Scottish seed is used. This is treated with Rizolex (tolclofos-methyl) at source. Mr Collier believes farm-saved seed cannot be considered cheap. Experience indicates using it can cut yields by 12t/ha (4.9t/acre).

He reckons liberal dressings of muck from the businesss 150 dairy cows, 130 replacements and up to 130 finished beef cattle, and the ability to pump applications of up to 20cm (8in) of irrigation water a season from three sources underwrite good yields, averaging 50-60t/ha (20-24t/acre). To ensure even spread, compound fertiliser is used rather than liquid or blends. Spraying costs are contained by varying products to suit conditions, and using cheaper contact chemicals rather than systemics.

Quota-based regime

Mr Collier thinks the PMB did some good work for the industry, especially in marketing. He would prefer a quota-based European potato regime than a free-for-all, though he predicts the most professional growers and marketeers will survive deregulation.

Though he supports the idea of a national producer council when the board goes, he is not happy about the way the Great British Potato Organisation might work. Its function, he claims, should be to build on the PMBs successful generic advertising and promotion, and not research and development.

He would be happy with a modest tonnage levy to fund this sort of work, but he opposes also paying an area levy into a kitty accessible to the Seed Development Council, universities and other research agencies.

There is a danger, he claims, that if growers are forced to pay three times, through the proposed area and tonnage levies and continuing seed royalties, the resulting income will encourage government to cut its contribution to R and D still further.

Despite the challenges, Mr Collier is confident the crop will continue to make a big contribution to the future of his business, which faces more upheaval when a completely new farmstead is developed on a greenfield site, including modern potato sprouting and storage facilities. &#42

&#8226 Fewer, very professional growers.

&#8226 Plantings rise 10%+.

&#8226 Massive surplus in first good season.

&#8226 More discerning market-place.

&#8226 Marketing expertise vital.

&#8226 Some smaller growers to go.

Investment in machinery, sprouting and storage facilities, and a marketing rethink should secure Andrew Colliers future in potatoes.