Growers from across the East of England shared opinions during an event.
There was no shortage of opinions and ideas at the recent East Midlands Potato Day, sponsored by AHDB Potatoes and held recently at leading growers and packers QV Foods in Lincolnshire.
On what was one of the warmest days of the summer so far, the eastern counties’ potato industry met to debate the hot topics of the moment.
Welcoming the gathering, Chairman of QV Foods, Duncan Worth told the audience that “We need to work together, grab the opportunities and build long-term relationships and trust in order to succeed.”
Chairman of NFU’s Horticulture and Potatoes Board, and grower, Guy Poskitt detailed the challenges and opportunities the industry has in front of them. Guy’s farm constitutes 6000 acres for combinable crops, vegetables and potatoes and he spoke on a wide range of topics. Guy stated “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
Following a season of over-supply, low prices for producers and falling consumer demand for fresh potatoes over recent years – though now levelling out – the day’s discussions confronted the issues realistically, with a view to examining what the industry can do to adapt and evolve to meet future demand.
AHDB sector analyst, David Swales addressed the retail environment for potatoes, where the number of people who believe potatoes are convenient is on the downward trend. This is borne out by the amount of time households spend in preparing and cooking main meals, (60 minutes in 1980 but only 32 minutes in 2014). This is reflected in the volume of fresh potatoes sold through retailers, in decline for a number of years - around 1.65m in 2011 but now in fact levelling off at around 1.45m in 2014, representing a fall in volume of around 12% and -0.5% in value.
However, consumers aren’t giving up on potatoes and are finding ways to save time and effort by buying other potato products such as frozen jacket potatoes, frozen chips, ready-made mash, and ready-to-cook baby potatoes. To the point where consumers are prepared to spend – pound for pound - six times more on products which offer convenience.
Summarising the current consumer environment, David stated that processed products are a strong growth area as they address consumers’ need for convenience. Shoppers are beginning to feel under less financial pressure and will be looking increasingly for quality products in the future. The decline of fresh potatoes can be managed if we help consumers become more aware of the health benefits and versatility.
Discussions and questions gave further traction to the health and convenience factor for consumers, and the differing and possibly confusing signposting used by the retailers reluctant to unite to promote potatoes with a cohesive sales approach.
Nick White, head of marketing for AHDB Potatoes, talked about the ‘One Voice’ campaign and the hugely effective educational campaign ‘Grow Your Own Potatoes’ which reaches 15,000 primary schools. The impactful ‘One Voice’ campaign was launched a couple of years ago to unite the industry to promote potatoes in clear, strong, straightforward messages to shoppers, politicians and the media.
“We need to work collectively to improve our industry and dial-up the positive messages about potatoes” said Nick. “We have a lot of passion and energy but it doesn’t always point in the same direction. ‘One Voice’ does this for us – it is our collective ‘call to action’. We are more powerful acting together and positive messages about potatoes are getting out there. Sign up for ‘One Voice’ and do contact me with your opinions and concerns – there is no need to sugar-coat it!”
Field-based workshops examined Potato Cyst Nematode (PCN) management, cultivations, soil management, irrigation and whole-farm rotation, and visitors were able to pick up practical advice to take back to their farm businesses.
Matt Back of Harper Adams University stressed that PCN is still one of top threats to the industry. “With an uncertain future for nematicides, it is paramount to examine alternative treatments for PCN infestations. New, garlic-based products have been tested with some success recently, as has bio-fumigation. PCN should be managed using integrated protection strategies, such as soil sampling, extended rotations, bio-fumigants, resistant cultivars and granular nematicides. It is paramount to understand your nematode population density, what species you’re dealing with and the virulence (pathotype),” Matt advises.
Matt Smallwood, agronomist for McCain Foods UK spoke from the soil pit on the farm about compaction in terms of best methods for cultivating for effective nematicide incorporation. Recommending that you assess the soil before you start cultivation work, Matt advised that working the soil twice is generally not helpful, but rather a single pass at 35cm usually creates sufficient tilth for good emergence. However, you may need to do more than one pass to incorporate nematicides if you don’t have a nematicide bed tiller. And if the nematicide is incorporated too low in the soil (33cms) then it won’t be effective. Rather, incorporate it at 25cm on a second pass then the nematicide is positioned where it will be effective, even if you do get some compaction from the second pass.
Philip Wright of Wright Resolutions gave specific detail on how to maintain and improve your soil structure to give the crop the best start. “Incorporating organic materials into your soils can lead to noticeable improvements in many areas including cultivations, water and nutrient holding capacity and general soil health. Organic matter maintains and improves soil and helps reduce compressive damage. Good drainage is also vital to keep your soil biology healthy. With weight of equipment increasing over the years, keeping your soil well-drained and resilient helps prevent soils being squeezed by mechanisation which can seriously constrain yield”.
Simon Day, Farm Manager at hosts Worth Farms provided an overview of their whole-farm rotations which they use to produce potatoes and other crops more sustainably. Simon advised how using cover crops (wheat, barley, peas, for example) will help, not just with productivity from these other commercial crops, but also helps soils recover from a build-up of diseases and pests. To manage PCN infestations, Simon recommends that the rotation ideally needs to be extended to at least 6 years, preferably 7 or 8.
Producing a quality crop remains paramount and throughout the day, the words ‘opportunities’, ‘challenges’, ‘convenience’, ‘relationships’, ‘evolve’, ‘quality’, ‘consistency’ and ‘future’ came up frequently. It was made apparent that increasing demand – and sustaining our industry - will come about by growing what consumers want to eat, and demonstrating through clear, unified messages that potatoes are healthy, tasty and convenient.