GROWERS might lament the way that potato marketing is moving, but they need to come to terms with the changes if theyre not to be left out in the cold. Thats the view of NIABs potato expert, Tom Dixon.
"As growing on spec for an unspecified market becomes increasingly hazardous, contract growing becomes more important. Production will be linked not just to the processors, but also to the pre-packing and general ware sectors.
The trend towards cooperative and group marketing and production is gaining momentum, and growers need to be tied into the stream," he says.
While the buyers influence may be resented, theres little place for the grower with an independent streak wishing to go it alone.
"Sure the supermarkets are bullish and very demanding, but people cant afford to deprive themselves of that big market. Besides, if theyre allied with a growers group, then at least theres a better chance of meeting might with might."
While you may be able to deal as an individual with processors today, within two or three years, two of the biggest processors at least – Walkers and Golden Wonder – will be sourcing entirely from groups, according to Mr Dixon. They will be dedicating production lines to different groups and looking to them to provide the continuity of supply to keep the lines running.
"The question behind variety choice has already moved on from what can I grow? to what can I sell?" says Mr Dixon. "But with the structural changes in the business it moves on another step from what can I sell this year? to what will sell in the longer term and by whom?"
Despite these changes, the most successful varieties are remarkably enduring. Mr Dixon believes that Estima, Cara and Maris Piper – together representing nearly 50,000ha of plantings – are unlikely to be dislodged for the next 10 years or so.
As well as their merits, he adds, growers have learnt to live with their shortcomings – Caras late maturity and Estimas susceptibility to blackleg, for instance.
"However, we can expect to see new names making an impression elsewhere – in the processing market, with novelty varieties and, hopefully, more flavourful ones."
On the crisping scene, Records longtime dominance has steadily been eroded over the past five years. Its problem, says Mr Dixon, is that although in taste and flavour terms it still makes a good crisp, variability in fry colour can lead to high levels of waste. The weight of Pepsico, in particular, is behind a drive for a more consistent pale fry colour.
Most people agree that it wont be a single variety that replaces Record, but a combination of Saturna, Hermes, Lady Rosetta and a small area of new varieties every year. Keeping a crisping plant running for 12 months of the year requires produce early, fresh and out of store, which would be difficult to achieve with a single variety.
There are fewer developments in the world of French fries which relies heavily on Pentland Dell and Russett Burbank with Shepody for early season production. Pentland Dell is as old as Record but is proving harder to replace, notes Mr Dixon. However, Spey is beginning to make an impact, as might Velox, he adds.
This years intake into Independent Variety Trials is the highest in 20 years, with a total of 38 varieties. "Some might say there are too many varieties, but there are so many market outlets," he remarks.
Breeders now have the added task of satisfying the green lobby. Genetic modification is certainly the easiest route to disease resistance, but its not clear when, if ever, consumers will accept the notion, points out Mr Dixon. "It might boil down to a choice between an environmentally friendly modified variety and a chemical hungry conventional one."
But the choice is hypothetical for the moment – there are no modified varieties in NIAB trials yet.
One area thats a difficult target for breeders is eating quality, says Mr Dixon. "Taste and flavour are so subjective, but some varieties are consistently identified as more flavoursome than others, such as Maris Peer, Charlotte and Nicola."
His advice for growers when selecting varieties is never to overlook the underlying limitations of where and how they farm – soil type and texture, fertility, the ability to irrigate, pest populations and the machinery and storage facilities in place all have a bearing. But the ideal is to adopt a distinctive variety which offers the opportunity to differentiate itself in the market.
There are few sectors where theres much room between supply and demand, but if there is its for high value salad varieties. Alex, a blue-eyed variety, to be considered for recommendation next year, is certainly distinctive. "But its cooking qualities worry me," says Mr Dixon. "If its as good as Nicola or Charlotte, it could be a winner."
If a variety has dual-purpose, then so much the better, he adds. Growers might feel less exposed to the vagaries of potato buyers if they at least have some marketing options. "Spey is a modern example – not only does it suit French fry production, but it also looks good as a pre-pack, although purists would say its too long and might damage too easily."