11 February 2000

Potato mistakes

POTATO growers continue to pay the price of their obsession with yield, rather than thinking of the value of their crop.

Too many growers still follow the dogma of increasing inputs to boost output, Cambridge University Farms director Eric Allen told the recent Agra Europe Potato 2000 conference in Rome.

"Most of the worst practices we see today have their origins in the blueprints for cereals of 25 years ago," he said. "What was important then was how much you produced, not how you produced it."

This had damaged consumer confidence and led to wasteful management.

In particular, producers still tended to over-fertilise their potato crops. "We should draw confidence from the sugar beet industry, where growers have increased yield while cutting nitrogen – a point totally lost on most people," said Mr Allen. "Some farmers are doing sugar beet with no fertiliser."

Similarly with water, there was a view that more was better than some. "As we impose more restrictions on extraction, this will have to change."

Mr Allen was equally condemning of farmers spraying policy. There was a tendency to spray for blight as an insurance, rather than a targeted approach in response to need.

Fungicide treatment of seed was also routine on many farms, and this was indefensible.

These bad management practices had been encouraged by the trend for potato growers to take on more land as they extended their businesses. "Potatoes are no longer a farm-based crop. The increased use of off-lying land leads to last minute decision making and is a major hindrance to best practice."

Integrated crop management would enable producers to minimise the use of energy, fertilisers and agro-chemicals, restore consumer confidence and under-pin the value of the crop, he said.