Consumers will push marketable yield to the fore
The new millennium is set to
bring many exciting
developments to arable
farming. To provide a taste
of the future farmers weekly
has joined forces with
Michelin. As the Potato 99
Charles Abel reports the
potato prospects seen by
British Potato Council
chairman David Walker
ACCELERATING trends in consumer attitudes will define the potato industry of the future. As society becomes more affluent, people will demand greater convenience and variety from potatoes and potato products, but will also be more volatile in their buying patterns.
"Yield per se is dead. It is marketable yield and the value of that market that will become more important. And what is marketable will be what society wants," says David Walker, chairman of the British Potato Council.
"More and more people are becoming cash rich, but time poor. They are eating on the move, grabbing something from the supermarket on the way home and eating out more. But they are also becoming more aware of health and nutrition issues and food safety. If they do not get what they want they will switch very rapidly to alternative products."
British potatoes can meet that changing demand – provided crops are grown to maximise their value not total yield and production efficiencies are made, says Mr Walker.
Reflecting changing consumer trends processed product will outweigh fresh sales, which currently account for 56-58% of sales, by 2005-10, he forecasts. "That trend will keep going."
Processed product from eastern Europe will pose a big threat, he warns. "2010 will be a very dangerous time. Eastern Europe has huge potential for growing potatoes for processed products, which can be shipped here relatively easily."
Processors there are showing a rapid uptake of technology is possible. Although logistics remain a headache, that will change. "Put it this way – we are unlikely to see any new processing plants installed on green-field sites in the UK. The challenge for us must be to get the cost of production down to justify continuing investment by existing processing companies in the UK."
Waste worth a third of the £90-100m identified by the BPC can be recouped by preventing bruising, cracks, greens and disease, Mr Walker says. Attention to detail and implementing new techniques will help cut unit cost.
Ware exports also offer scope to redress any trade imbalance. "Our ware quality is significantly better than continental buyers are used to and UK packaging and presentation is well ahead too.
"Despite the adverse exchange rate, we are doing well with exports, which continue to grow. Take off that currency burden and it could grow rapidly," Mr Walker says.
More attention to taste and texture when selecting varieties could help further. "French consumers are more demanding in this area, so BPC work to adopt a more scientific approach could help."
Genetically-modified potatoes to offer improved nutrition will be developed by 2005 and on-farm by 2010, Mr Walker estimates. "Consumers will demand improved nutrition and it is slightly bizarre that they will get it from something they are so worried about now."
Developing closer working relationships between growers and processors and packers will achieve further efficiencies. "In many cases five year rolling contracts will help provide the stability that is so needed. Improved commitment and trust between the supply chain is critical to keeping European competitors at bay."
Anyone not investing heavily or having access to the basic equipment needed to grow, water, feed and harvest the crop will not stay in business. "Professionalism will be the key and where smaller growers share equipment and expertise they will continue."
Water supply will also be critical. "Water is vital to release yield potential and its availability will influence future production centres, mirroring trends seen in the US."
On-farm production will be co-ordinated from a fully computerised farm office, capable of adjusting water, nutrient and crop protection inputs automatically, through in-ridge irrigation lines. Data from satellite imaging will help tailor crop management far more carefully. "In the US and in high value veg crops this is happening already. It will only happen more so in potatoes."
Indeed, technical and market information will be key commodities for potato producers of the future. "Only knowledge-driven businesses will make serious money." *
• Big consumer changes.
• Value not volume the key.
• More processing than ware.
• Five-year contracts common.
• Huge threat from eastern Europe.
• GM output traits 2005/10.
• Info-based cropping.
• Better R&D co-ordination.