When chips are down the rain is to blame

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IT is the worst year in living memory for potato farmers in the Borders.

Producers are hoping the weather stays dry until harvest starts in the middle of next month.

But even if it does, yields and income will be down and costs up along with potato prices.

Borders representative on NFU Scotland working group for potatoes, Ian Fleming of Sucklawridge, Kelso, said the whole season has been the worst he has known “by a long shot”.

“I’ve spoken to some of the men who have farmed for many years and they have never seen a year as bad as this, “ he told us.

The income of several growers in the Borders who produce only potatoes will be “vastly reduced”, he said.

And the bad year could prompt many smaller producers, already concerned about the expense of growing the crop, to pull out of potatoes altogether he added.

Some experts estimate the crop could be down by as much as 20 per cent which means a price increase on what is successfully grown.

But that will bring little benefit to farmers, many of whom are on fixed-price contracts set as far back as November which won’t factor in higher costs and reduced yields.

Mr Fleming explained April was wet and cold when farmers were trying to plant: the Kelso area had 125mm of rain – about double the usual – and only eight dry days.

Late planting in May and June already would reduce the yield potential, he said, adding: “Some fields were so wet they didn’t get planted at all.”

Planting over the UK is five per cent down which he thought it would be because farmers were unable to get the seed in the ground.

June and July were cold and wet with more than 40mm of rain in the Kelso area which is more than double the usual.

“That’s led to poor growing conditions and crop development and that will reduce final yield,” said Mr Fleming.

He continued: “The wet conditions have led to waterlogging and flooding in fields where tubers have rotted out and not grown.

“Poor growing conditions will also lead to reduced quality and skin condition because of the potatoes growing in continually wet soil.”

Ugly-looking skins doesn’t affect the eating quality but means potatoes could be rejected by supermarket buyers, said Mr Fleming.

The wet conditions have encouraged pests such as slugs which eat holes in the potatoes and make them unsellable. And heavy rain has washed soil off the big potato tills which allows the light in and turns the tubers green, again making them unsellable.

And potato blight is a particular problem this year when spores develop on the leaves and cause the whole plant to decay.

“It’s a massive problem and the weather conditions we have had recently – wet and humid – have been ideal for blight to spread,” said Mr Fleming.

“These problems have been happening across the Borders,” he said.

“Most years we potentially have some of these problems but this year we have them all together over the whole season. This has lasted since planting time. The whole season’s been affected.”

He grows 85 acres of potatoes on the 430-acre farm and said: “I’ve been affected by all of these and am trying to manage the situation and control the blight with crop protection which we need to apply every week. But it’s been very difficult to get on and do this because of the fields being wet.

“Growing a potato crop is quite expensive – it costs growers over £5,000 per hectare – and if they are losing their crop they have still got these costs to pay.”

Producers are now hoping conditions will dry up to enable them to harvest but it is too late to boost yield.

“Even if it stays dry between now and the start of harvest in mid-September the ground will still be wet below,” said Mr Fleming.