Potato yields from the early Jersey Royal crop are down 40% as drought grips the Chanel Islands in bone dry conditions not seen since the drought of 1976.
A very wet February was followed by virtually no rain through March and April, and the season on Jersey is running three to four weeks behind the normal lifting schedule.
William Church, sales and marketing director of the Jersey Royal Company, says tuber sizes are down and the lifting season has been extended until mid-July in the hope of some rain.
“This is a very challenging year – some say the worst since 1976 – and we are now begging for rain,” he tells Farmers Weekly.
The tough season comes just as the Jersey Royal Company was named as the 40th Linking Environment and Farming (Leaf) demonstration farm, reflecting the group’s work on sustainable farming.
The company grows about 60% of Jersey’s early potatoes, or some 1,800ha, on an island where one third of the cultivated land grows potatoes of the Jersey Royal variety.
The group owns no land but rents it from about 110 landlords, and then conducts planting, harvesting, grading and the marketing of the crop.
Mr Church says this season is tougher than 2018, when the “Beast from the East” cold weather arrived in late February, frosting many early crops, and yields were down 20% in a delayed harvest.
This season, February was very wet with strong north-east winds, and when the first very early outdoor crops were lifted at the end of March, yields were down 50%.
Yields are now running down 40% on usually levels of about 18t/ha, while prices are already set for delivery to the big retailers on the UK mainland.
The industry normally produces about 28,000 to 30,000 tonnes of early spuds each year for delivery largely within the UK.
Potatoes on the island are grown continuously on some ground, and so there is a need to control damaging pests, such as potato cyst nematodes.
The island uses two techniques to reduce nematode numbers. First, hot mustard is grown after potatoes are lifted, which is then flailed and incorporated into the soil to act as a biofumigant, releasing gases into the soil and so killing the nematodes before the next crop is planted.
The second technique is growing prickly potato or sticky nightshade (Solanum sysimbriifolium), which is a trap crop as it attracts the nematodes thinking there are potato tubers, but as the plant has no tubers the nematode cysts starve and die after hatching.
The group is also reducing nitrate runoff by better placement of fertiliser and the use of cover crops such as forage radish and phacelia, as well as rotating potato land with maize and grass leys.