By Tim Relf
POTATO growers looking for signs of climbing prices will draw little comfort from the latest British Potato Council stock estimates.
Potato stocks at the end of last November were estimated at 4.32 million tonnes, despite last years smaller harvest.
Many analysts had expected stocks to be much lower on the back of a reduced harvest. But although last years yields increased by 2t/ha, they failed to offset a 5% fall in plantings.
Potato prices have now stopped rising, edging down to £78/ t in the week to 16 January.
The BPC stocks estimate is based on a wastage average of 9.5% up to November. But wastage has since climbed to about 15.5% and North Yorkshire farmer Robin Barker thinks it could be even higher.
Mr Barker says his wastage figure is twice what it was last year and probably at its highest for a decade.
“If the market was as over-supplied as these figures suggest, prices would be at £20/ t or £30/ t,” he says.
Blight is a big reason for the waste nationwide, Mr Barker says. “We sprayed about 15 times for blight, compared with eight or nine last year.”
John Bull at BDF Commodities was also surprised by the latest stocks data. He expected a figure nearer 4m tonnes. The higher figure has prompted April futures to drop £6/ t to £100/ t early, he says.
But farmers have delayed selling good-quality samples, having seen the market edging upwards, says John Anderson of the Scottish Agricultural College.
“With returns down from cereals and livestock, people are anxious to make as much from their potatoes as possible,” he says.
However, holding off for too long can be a dangerous game – especially now the market appears to have weakened.
“Delaying [marketing] incurs store costs and may mean extra wastage,” says Mr Anderson. Farmers should realise that “anything over £100/ t is probably not a loss-making figure.”