Dominic Kilburn catches up with a Norfolk-based specialist adviser to get his timely thoughts
With potato planting underway, Dominic Kilburn catches up with a Norfolk-based specialist adviser to get his timely thoughts on the crop, the season ahead, and some of the challenges facing growers today. The watchword ahead of planting potato crops this season, says Norfolk potato adviser and business consultant Andy Alexander (right), is to be patient. A wetter than usual winter means that soils will take that much longer to dry out sufficiently to ensure proper seedbeds can be created. Patience is definitely the key word for this season; yes, those on the sands have pretty much started as usual, but 90 per cent of the crop isnt produced on land as light as that and so, for the majority, they must wait until field conditions are good, he stresses. The more we go to soil workshops, the more we hear that if you go too soon, misjudge the field conditions and get it wrong, then its very hard to get the subsequent crop right for the remainder of the season.
This year, of all years, its very important that the crop is planted and established in near perfect conditions, he adds. Seed health, he suggests, generally looks to be good although there are some signs of black scurf which can lead to rhizoctonia. Growers need to wash seed if high levels of black scurf are found before treating it with a fungicide ahead of planting, advises Andy. Turning to storage issues; he points out that many growers this season had unloaded stores earlier than they would have liked and this will have a financial implication on margins. There have been a lot of problems with many of the late main crop varieties such as Markies, which had struggled to skin set in 2013. It was the epitaph left behind from the cold spring we all suffered in 2013. Many crops sat in the ground for up to six weeks prior to emerging and physiologically it meant they were crop two to three weeks late in terms of development. A very dry and hot period in the summer also contributed to holding back crop growth and, as a consequence, with working windows always an issue, some crops were desiccated before they were fully mature and this led to skin set problems and scuffing, which allowed bacteria to get in. A wet October when much of the crop was lifted compounded the situation in store, adds Andy. Challenges Focusing on some of the challenges ahead, Andy suggests that issues such as rising land rents, higher workload pressures and pesticide legislation were just some of the factors adding to the overall risk that potato growers had to face and manage each PO_02season. Above: Patience is the key word when establishing potato crops this season following the extremely wet winter months. In terms of pesticides, the unexpected withdrawal of slug pellet methiocarb, as well as restrictions on the way herbicide and desiccant Harvest (glufosinate-ammonium) can now be applied (see details on page 17), were just two recent examples where growers crop protection options were being limited. We are doing our best to retain key pesticides, but when you think that a slug-susceptible potato like Maris Piper is one of the most widely grown varieties in the UK, the removal of methiocarb will increase the pressure on growers to get good control of slugs in the crop, he explains. It will put more of a reliance on metaldehyde-based pellets which already have problems with water contamination and, when considering other crops in the rotation such as wheat and oilseed rape, growers have a finite amount of this active they can use on potatoes in a 12 month period. Andy warns that with nematicides also very much under the regulators spotlight, it was critical that everything possible was done to secure their future use on farm, particularly as the latest figures estimate that over 60 per cent of land suitable for potato production is infested with potato cyst nematode (PCN). We are looking to plant breeders to develop PCN resistant varieties and there are one or two coming through, but you have to ask whether they are suitable for the end market, but the consumer will ultimately decide.
Its the same situation for blight breeding for resistance is a long-term process, he adds.
He notes that for this season, when considering blight, its important that growers dont take their eye off the ball in terms of blight protection following the dry summer in 2013 which meant a very benign year for the disease. It is still the most devastating disease for the crop, he says. Technically we can manage it very well but, as usual, the weather will decide what the pressure will be like this season. Changing times Andy suggests that the industry is still undergoing significant change in terms of its end market and the number of growers supplying it. As consumers habits change and people have less time to prepare meals, the fresh potato sector seems to be losing market share to the convenience of the processed sector. Above: The unexpected withdrawal of slug pellet methiocarb will increase the pressure this season on growers trying to prevent slug damage to their potato crops. Theres a continual shift in the dynamics of growers involved too; they are becoming less in number and increasing in size, he claims. A grower today with 200240ha (500600 acres) of potatoes will have an investment of nearly 5,000/ha (2,000/acre) and thats without the cost of storage. Its all about risk and return. Ten years ago if a growers business was profitable three years out of five, hed be OK, but it has to be profitable every season now in order to have the finances to manage that investment risk. At the same time, land prices are being driven up with the increase in maize production as a feedstock for the growing number of biogas plant installations. The crop is now competing for land along with potatoes and vegetables, and providing landlords with another revenue stream. Ultimately, this means that potato growers need to get better returns from their crops, he adds.
Because of these pressures and the increased overall risk in growing the crop, we are also seeing more growers contracting their crops prior to planting each season. We were in a tricky period about 18 months ago in a weather-affected season when a fall in yields resulted in some of these contracts not being fulfilled, but I said it then, and Ill say it now; its so important to remain in close dialogue with your customer to ensure that contract arrangements and quality are met. Andy concludes by reminding growers that government reform of the water abstraction licencing laws (full details on p8 Farmers Guide March edition), is going to be very important in terms of the allocation of water for irrigation in the future. Farmers have very little time left in which to try to influence the Government in what is going to happen in the reform personally, as part of it, I would like to see more government funding available to encourage growers to construct reservoirs, he says. Growers have until March 28th to make their feelings known on the reform of abstraction licences directly to Defra, or to Defra via the NFU.