Potato growers still have their problems to face

4 tractors blue sky
4 tractors blue sky

Potato growing is on such a large, professional scale now that it’s easy to forget that growers with hundreds, even thousands, of acres still run into the same problems we had when many of us grew only a dozen or so acres.

Two autumns ago, the greatest problem was harvesting in almost continuous mud and rain. This year, the problem is our old friend supply and demand. Potatoes are selling retail for the equivalent of £500 to £1,500 a tonne, but growers are getting an ex-farm price of as little as £50 a tonne. Not a lot when average growing costs are about £150 a tonne, even with modern technology, large machines and skilled management of crop growing and control of diseases and infections.

Compared to simpler times, growers also have many handling and storage hoops to jump through to supply precisely what supermarkets demand, with attendant penalties or contract cancellations if they don’t meet the specifications. Worse, these large-scale operators producing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of potatoes seem to be as vulnerable to sudden cuts in demand or price by the firms they supply as we were to the whims of the local greengrocer or potato merchant. That seems to be regardless of contracts. Our verbal agreements of the past might be, as film mogul Sam Goldwyn once famously said, “not worth the paper they’re written on”, but I expected more of modern written contracts.

Apparently not. When the crunch comes and supply exceeds demand – not least because more and more of us buy rice or pasta rather than fresh potatoes, and crops have been good this year – then potato-packing operations have unilaterally cut volumes required and prices paid.

There seems nothing growers can do when that happens except grit their teeth and hope that next year will produce better prices. When so much is invested in equipment and systems, simply opting out of potato growing is a much more difficult option.

The same applies in some degree to most types of farming. Beef is an example of where long-term planning and commitment is needed when from conception to sale of the finished beef animal is well over two years. The good news, or at least slightly better news, is that after what its spokesman calls “a rollercoaster 2014”, the National Beef Association is forecasting a better time for beef producers in 2015.

Chris Mallon, national director of the association, said that after a low-price start to this year, kinder weather and phenomenal grass growth meant that beef calves were coming indoors on average 60 kg heavier than the previous year. Cheaper cereal prices – that sound of grinding teeth is cereal growers – meant that finishing rations this winter will be cheaper. So all round it’s a good start to 2015 with, Mr Mallon suggested, a good year to come. A few thousand beef farmers throughout the country will be hoping he’s right.

As for me, I gave up forecasting anything some years ago. Actual events always topped any attempt at forecasts – ask Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne or any economist near you. But Happy New Year anyway.