28 April 2001

Topsy-turvy down among the ridges

NEVER-ending rain and saturated land means that UK potato growers are simultaneously attempting to lift the remnants of last years crop while attempting to plant this years.

"Ten percent of last years crop is still to be lifted and planting has barely started," says British Potato Councils (BPC) market information manager, Rob Burrow. "Only 4,000ha are now planted compared to 40,000ha at this time last year. After the third week of April a delay in planting will equate to a loss in yield of 0.5t/ha a week."

There is now an incentive for growers to try and lift any sound crop: "Prices are rising because there wont be the earlies on the market. Figures being quoted are £40-60/t for poor quality and £100/t for good quality," reports Mr Burrows.

Robert Smith of Russell Smith Farms, Cambridgeshire, has only planted "one acre out of 500". Even though the soil is traditionally well drained – light loamy sand over chalk – Mr Smith feels that he wont be able to wait for perfect, or even good, seedbed conditions because they might never come. "I have never seen the land so sad and lifeless. We have had over twice our normal rainfall over the past 12 months. I need a week of dry weather before I can start planting again," he says.

Some parts may not get planted: "I am pessimistic about the expected yield of the areas that have been planted, especially if we now get a dry summer. Our target date for finishing lifting is 10 October; we dare not extend this period. If we delay any longer we cant get on the land. Quality too, will obviously deteriorate."

"Patience pays dividends when potato planting," says Damian Baker, BPCs head of field services. However he realises that there are limits to how long growers can wait: "I will be worried if the main crop isnt in the ground by the middle of May."

Mr Bakers major concern is that growers keep their unplanted potato seed at its target temperature of 3 to 4íC in order to extend its dormancy. Any higher than this and there is the risk of sprouting; lower than 2íC will encourage unwanted respiration and associated dry matter loss.

Vice-chairman of the NFU potato committee, Grant Burton, farms in the Vale of York. He says that regretfully his patience has run out and has now taking delivery of his maincrop seed, to start planting when there is a gap in the weather.

"The yield loss will be too great if I leave it any longer. I know that the seedbed will be far less than ideal, and there is the real risk that 10% of the crop wont grow, but Ive got to start."

So how will the conditions affect prices? The lack of earlies should mean that the downturn from an initial high – in the region of £1,000/t – will be more gradual than in normal years.

Greenvale APs head of agronomy, Paul Coleman, forecasts a dramatically fluctuating supply. "From mid-July to second week of August there will be an under-supply because only 10% of the early processing varieties have been planted.

"Come the last week of August and into September there will be oversupply because earlies and the beginning of the maincrop will be coming onto the market at the same time. By October it will be back to undersupply because of poorer yielding maincrops."

Mr Coleman can also see the possibility of a sizeable reduction in the planted acreage as some growers decide it is not worth planting so late, and put the land into set-aside.

The forecast July/August shortfall is unlikely to be topped up by imports from France, Holland and Germany because they are also having the same planting problems. Mr Coleman says: "I think that July/August prices will be very similar to last year: between £150 and £250/t. But, after August, it is a very difficult year to second guess."