The last 12 months have confirmed just how cyclical potato production in Ireland has become. My understanding is that many growers with ware stocks overhanging from last year – and no contracted outlets – are getting not much more than stock feed prices for their produce.
One of the most significant conclusions to come out of research, carried out by Teagasc a couple of years ago, is the fact that the sector does have a future, provided growers take a rational approach when it comes to planning the way ahead.
For ware producers this means having a market for the crop prior to planting. The days are gone when putting seed into the ground in the hope that buyers will materialise at harvest are long gone. Growers must work closely with packers and other buyers to ensure that they are planting the right varieties, that their management strategies are right and that the end product coming out of the ground meets consumers’ needs. There is also an onus on the supermarkets to back up their verbal commitments to the local potato sector with action – both in terms of procurement and paying a better price.
But there is also a need for Government to play its part. To remain competitive local ware growers need to invest in on-farm cold store facilities. Packers and processors do not have the capacity or the inclination to meet this storage requirement themselves with the result that supply is being sourced in regions such as the Republic of Ireland where year-round, on-farm potato storage is already a reality. It is therefore crucial that government facilitates the development of farm-based cold stores for growers here in Northern Ireland through a relevant grant aid programme.
Seed growers can also look forward to a brighter future on the basis of the province being actively marketed as a high health potato growing region. The Dutch are now the world’s leading seed potato development power. However, they have major problems taking forward new varieties within their own territory because of existing disease challenges. As a consequence, local growers could easily produce crops of ultra high quality seed for the various seed houses. This opportunity now exists: it’s up to the industry to find out how best it can be grasped.
There are no magic solutions for the challenges facing the potato industry. What’s required is more innovation, better marketing and more added value, allied to the greater exploitation of our technology and knowledge base. Farmers can help themselves by reducing cost, improving quality and focussing totally on their customer needs.