The humble spud, staple of the British dinner table, has weathered storm, flood and lockdown, but farmers are on tenterhooks ahead of the crucial growing season for the key crop as the UK heatwave is followed by thunderstorms and deluges.
Farmers are desperate to avoid a repeat of last year, when good growing weather over the summer was followed by heavy rains in some areas from late September that left the ground too sodden to harvest for months, spelling disaster for many potato growers.
“It’s too early to say what this year’s harvest will be like, but the next few weeks will be crucial,” said Alex Godfrey, the chair of the potato forum at the National Farmers’ Union, who grows potatoes in north Lincolnshire. “The crops in the ground look good, and have done so far this year, but whether that yields tubers we don’t know yet. We only completed last year’s harvest on 23 March this year. That’s very unusual.”
Mark Alton, who has a farm in North Yorkshire, said: “Last year we all had big smiles at this stage, when things were looking bright. I had superb potatoes in the ground and started to lift them on 24 September. On 25 September, the heavens opened and 150mm of rain fell in the following six or seven weeks.”
That put paid to about a quarter of last year’s crop. “But I am still optimistic and enthusiastic,” he added.
The hot bright start to spring this year has already caused problems for some. Nigel Adams, who usually produces 7,500 tonnes of potatoes a year in the West Midlands, said yields were slightly down in July for his early crop, after only 3mm of rain in May. “We’re hoping for it to be a bit cooler and a little bit of rain [in September],” he said.
Extreme weather, from record-breaking heat and drought to devastating floods, has caused severe hardship for Britain’s potato farmers. “In the last two years, we’ve seen the worst crops of potatoes for the last 40 years,” said Howard Snape, the regional president of McCain Foods, the maker of oven chips and other potato products.
Potato farmers watched their tubers shrivel in the record-breaking drought of 2018, when relentless sunshine and months with little rain baked the fields. Yields fell by about 10-15% overall, but some farmers lost more than a quarter of their crop, while the quality of the remaining potatoes suffered too, with undersized and wizened specimens.
Last year the problem was too much rain, when flooding arrived at the worst time for many farmers, as they were preparing to lift their crop in September and October. The potatoes had benefited from good weather and farmers were looking forward to a bumper crop after the previous year’s travails. But as rain poured down, the harvester machines could not even reach the fields. Unable to rescue their crop, many farmers were forced to watch it rot, while others had to wait until this year to finish harvesting. Again, yields were down by about 10-15% overall.
If that were not enough, this year potato farmers were hammered by the coronavirus lockdown. About half of the UK’s potato crop goes to catering, according to Snape. That market disappeared almost overnight when the lockdown was enforced, leaving farmers with nowhere to sell their produce.
Prices for potatoes at the farm gate fell by half for many farmers during lockdown, from about GBP300 to GBP320 a tonne to about GBP150 to GBP160 a tonne. Many farmers were unprepared for the financial consequences.
However, most farmers managed to avoid waste as supermarkets stepped up their sales of fresh potatoes to homebound consumers, even taking on the bigger potatoes that would normally be sent for processing and to chip shops, and in some cases specialist varieties usually destined for top-end restaurants.
“The market did a very good job of dealing with the surplus,” said Godfrey. “Though there was a large transfer of value from growers to the retailers.”
McCain, which as the biggest purchaser of British potatoes buys about 15% of the crop, is moving to help its 250 UK farmers with an investment of GBP25m over the next five years in new technologies and equipment. The money will be spent on irrigation systems in some areas, where water is likely to be an increasing problem in future years, and on giving farmers access to new machinery, such as self-propelling harvesters than can cope with sodden ground. These machines can cost about GBP400,000 each, putting them out of reach of many small farmers.
But potato farmers also need reassurance from the government, said Godfrey. Brexit is looming – “we had forgotten about it, there have been so many other things to think about,” said Adams – and with it a massive change for British agriculture, as the government seeks new trade deals that could undercut UK standards.
“If you want to eat good wholesome food at the standards that British agriculture has achieved in the last 20 years, someone needs to pay for it,” said Alton. “If you’re not prepared to pay money for higher British standards, British agriculture will change dramatically, and probably for the worse.”
Godfrey points to another lesser-known danger following Brexit. When EU subsidies are cut off, the government plans to move farmers from subsidies based on the land they farm to payments for the environmental goods and services they provide.
What is still not clear, however, is how those environmental land management contracts will work in practice, especially for farmers who do not own their land and thus may not be able to guarantee long-term environmental management. Like many other potato growers, Godfrey rents many of the fields he plants for the growing season only, from March to October each year. “We are hoping we will not be excluded, but it is not well understood that a large proportion of what is grown is on rented land. We just don’t know how that will work yet.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We have been working closely with farmers, land managers and other stakeholders to design environmental land management (ELM). As part of this we are considering how ELM could work under the various forms of land management in practice across England, including land which is rented. We will continue to refine the scheme during our national pilot next year.”