Seed potato supply headaches underline need for fewer varieties

John Sarup in a potato field

Strange times indeed. You wouldn’t even expect to read what has happened over the last few years in a best-selling novel. 

Brexit, Covid pandemic, Russia’sRussia’s invasion of Ukraine and, amongst it all, the demise of AHDB Potatoes. All factors that have impacted UK potato production.

See also: Researchers find genes to unlock better potato stress tolerance

The seed supply issues brought about by Brexit have provided some headaches for several seed houses and growers alike. 

I can only hope that those who are allegedly importing “small ware” can sleep at night, or at least drink “Horlicks”.

Maybe now is the time for all seed breeders, suppliers, packers, processors, and supermarkets to focus on fewer varieties that tick all the boxes for their respective end-use. 

This would include yield resistance/tolerance to potato cyst nematode (both Globodera rostochiensis and Globodera pallida); resistance to potyvirus; taste; sugar stability, long-term storability – the list goes on. 

Opportunities

Here lies an opportunity for Scotland and Northern Ireland, although I do worry about the amount of PCN-infested land now being found in seed growing areas of Scotland and increasing amounts of the virus being found in some Scottish seed crops. 

There is some good work being carried out by SRUC, Scottish Agronomy and James Hutton looking at preventing virus spread with the use of flowering margins and straw mulches. All are extremely relevant in light of the continued loss of suitable chemical control. 

I find it totally ironic that the main insecticide group (pyrethroids) in our armoury is probably killing more beneficial insects than aphids. More work on resistance must be done, particularly on transient aphid species like Willow-Carrot aphid. 

So, who will fund this and other work now that AHDB Potatoes are no longer funding, through the levy, key research topics? 

Partnership

I hope that the seed sector in Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland can come together in some form of partnership to fund relevant research into key aspects of seed production. 

I was always told that two key factors influence a potato crop more than any other, seed quality and cultivations. If one or the other, or both, are compromised, that will have more effect on the crop than anything else we do.

Russia’sRussia’s invasion of Ukraine has created yet another dynamic, one of which I cannot remember in my lifetime. Wheat at £300+/t and rapeseed at £550+/t focuses the mind a little. 

Add to this the cost of fertiliser, diesel and electricity, why would you want to grow potatoes? Why would anyone want to let land for potatoes? 

Contract prices

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Contract price increases of 15%-20% in the processing sector did reflect, to a certain extent, increases in fertiliser and fuel, but that was before Putin’s exploits in Ukraine, resulting in further energy price hikes. 

The packing sector is a different story, in my opinion. It seems like a race to the lowest price possible, driven by the major supermarkets’ desire to compete with the so-called “discounters”. 

Most, if not all, of my clients who grow packing crops are cutting back production this year, based on poor contract prices for the 2022 crop and slow movement of crops in store from the 2021 harvest. 

I suspect home consumption of fresh potatoes is at an all-time low, not helped by the fact that freedom from the Covid Pandemic restrictions means most of the public wants to go out to eat, even if it’s to McDonald’s, judging by the queues at the drive-through of every restaurant I pass.

Planting progress

  • Cheshire started the second week of March and has continued virtually non-stop with Accord, Lady Rosetta, Amora and Daisy all being planted into excellent soil conditions. 
  • Northumberland started in the last week of March, with excellent soil conditions
  • Yorkshire will start w/c 28/3/2022

I will sign off with this quote from AA Milne: “What I say is that, if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow”

jsarup@spudagronomy.com

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