By Robert Harris

POTATO growers risk losing established pre-pack markets unless they release stocks soon, warns the British Potato Council.

Imports are rising fast as buyers, short of good-quality domestic product, turn to the Continent.

“Once trading connections are established, they will continue,” BPC chairman David Walker warned in an open letter to growers this week.

Total imports for the season so far hit 81,300t last Friday, almost 8000t higher than the previous week and 70,000t more than this time last year.

Although much is processing material, extreme weather in the latter half of the season means top-quality packing samples are also hard to find.

Rising imports are a big concern, says Mr Walker.

“At this time of year it is a new phenomenon created by a lack of availability of quality potatoes at an acceptable price to the consumer.”

Too many growers are holding back as they watch prices rise, he adds.

But top-quality material is worth 200-plus and the imported equivalent can be brought in at 150-180/t delivered.

“All grower groups and packers must agree supply and pricing policies that allow all sides to win – the alternative is that all sides will lose,” warns Mr Walker.

Continuity, rather than chasing peak prices, is the key if UK growers wish to preserve their markets, comments Alan Bell, procurement manager for Lincolnshire-based QV Foods.

“Otherwise, French merchants could get their foot in the door of UK retailers.”

After last years disastrous prices, it is easy to see why farmers want more money, says Graham Nichols, NFU potato committee chairman.

“But they should not try to get it all back in one year. Once you lose trade, it is a hell of a job trying to reclaim it.”