European potato growers face increasing competition at home and abroad

In this brand new decade, the potato industry is facing many challenges in terms of import and retail competition, growing the crop and recruiting skilled labour. Speaking at an AHDB/Catchment Sensitive Farming meeting on sustainable potato production, held in Malton, North Yorkshire, Rufus Pilgrim, managing director of R.S. Cockerill, outlined some of the issues facing growers. quoted him as saying:: “We are supplying very fussy consumers who are used to a high quality product. There is also a highly competitive retail scene, with Aldi accounting for 8 per cent of the fresh market and Lidl, 6 per cent. There is a battle to keep potato consumption up and we cannot afford inflation – it is a political no go.”

In northern Europe there has been an increase in potato area and a focus on growing export markets. “In Belgium they are growing 90,000 hectares of potatoes. A typical family farm is 150 acres, growing 50 acres of potatoes. Most growers have a second job and are not reliant on agriculture for their main income. They are using family labour – machinery is owner driven and maintained.”

“Growers are looking for three- to five-year contracts and there is a big push for productivity and innovation. The industry is pushing into Asia and North America, for example back filling vessels of frozen beef that are coming into Europe.”

Domestically, there is also a drive to improve efficiency in the supply chain. “At Cockerill we used to produce 50-55 2.5kg packs a minute, now the machines do 75 packs a minute.” And there is also pressure to fulfil environmental credentials. “We are now having to get seriously involved in reducing plastic – it is getting thinner and we are putting more potatoes into a smaller bag. Paper-based alternatives are biodegradable but have their own issues and are 10 times the cost of plastic.”

Concerning crop production, Mr Pilgrim said mint oil alternatives to CIPC were four times the cost. He also highlighted the challenges of harmonising varieties which offered potato cyst nematode resistance/tolerance with customer requirements. Weather patterns are also becoming more extreme, he said.

“Weather events used to be about one in 10 years – we have had three in the last seven years.”

Availability, cost and quality of labour also remain key issues for the industry, said Mr Pilgrim. “Capital expenditure is required for automation but with increasingly sophisticated equipment you need a skilled workforce which is becoming harder to find. We also need to attract new entrants.”

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