How the East’s potatoes are propping up national supplies

East Anglian farmers escaped the worst of the wet weather which has hampered the 2019 potato harvest

East Anglian farmers escaped the worst of the wet weather which has hampered the 2019 potato harvest, say industry analysts. Picture: Julie Smart / iWitness24 - Credit: julie smart

A dismal autumn has taken its toll on the potato harvest – but East Anglian farmers have escaped the worst of the wet weather to help keep supplies moving into supermarkets and processors.

The latest analysis from the AHDB (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board) shows potato lifting is nearing completion in the East of England, with 95pc finished by November 12 despite a challenging period of heavy rain "significantly damaging soil structure".

That is the highest figure in the country, while other regions have struggled badly as wet weather persisted into November leaving saturated fields and devastating flooding. Those include the North West, which has only lifted 67pc of its potatoes, and Yorkshire and Humber where the figure is 79pc.

There are increasing reports of crops being abandoned, or farmers halting the harvest in the hope of mounting a salvage effort in the spring once ground conditions improve - although this strategy risks producing lower-grade potatoes which will need find different markets.

But here in East Anglia, a higher proportion of the crop was harvested earlier in the season, adding to a supply of good quality potatoes which has reduced the immediate need for more costly imports which risked pushing up prices for consumers.

David Eudall, AHDB's head of arable market specialists, said: "In the East we are about 95pc lifted. There are still a few very wet fields and there are some issues around Fenland because of the inability for the water to drain away.

"We are seeing a wide range of prices. The lower quality material that has come off the field recently is getting a lower price because it has to move quickly into processors and packhouses, while the guys who have got the crop out of the ground in September before the wet weather have got some good quality and are able keep it in a good condition throughout the winter, so it is starting to command a higher price.

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"Your region (the East) will have been lifting earlier and will have a greater proportion of that good quality.

"In terms of a bag of potatoes at the supermarket or a roast potato at a restaurant, the consumer is unlikely to see a massive appreciation in price, because of the volume harvested earlier in the year. The supplies will be there but the quality is very variable.

"We always import a large proportion of processed products from places like France and Belgium, and that might increase slightly but it is too early to say specifically because it depends on the amount going into store that has been harvested over the last few weeks, and whether it deteriorates over the winter.

"If everything was still in the soil, that material would have to move very quickly or we would see really high amount of rots and diseases in store potatoes. Therefore we would have to import more material and that would massively increase the price. Because we have had that good level of early crop it negates that risk."

The AHDB's figures show the East of England's efforts have helped pull the national average for potato lifting progress up to 89pc - but there is "a great deal of uncertainty over the fate of the remaining 11pc of the crop area", with 2-3pc expected to be completely written off, due to the poor quality of the crop and the risk of rot and disease spreading in store.

North Norfolk farm contractor Kit Papworth said: "It has been a very tough autumn. Norfolk is reaching the end of its potato harvest, but the national picture is tragic. Some of those guys are never going to get those spuds out of the ground.

"It costs a lot to produce potatoes and there is so much money sitting in the soil. Norfolk is getting through it, but elsewhere in the country there are a lot of potatoes underwater."