Coronavirus: Chip shop and McDonald’s closures leave tonnes of potatoes without a market
- Credit: Nick Butcher
The closure of chip shops and McDonald’s takeaways has left a glut of potatoes without a market as farmers grapple with “a huge amount of market disruption and uncertainty” amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Farming leaders said while some potato sectors have seen a massive increase in demand, others have been severely impacted by widespread closures within the food service industry.
In particular, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) says the closure of McDonald’s has affected supplies into processor McCain, with farmers being asked to voluntarily reduce their cropping areas to grow fewer of the potato varieties which would be used to make fries.
Meanwhile, the loss of trade from fish and chip shops has had a major impact on the bagging sector. While some growers have successfully redirected 25kg bags to satisfy high demand at local grocery stores, others are being encouraged to contact potato packing businesses about selling in bulk into the mainstream retail market.
The NFU is encouraging retailers to relax specifications in order to take potatoes that were originally destined for the food service sector, but says there is “still likely to be hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fresh chipping and processing potatoes that are available”.
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Norfolk potato specialist Tony Bambridge is managing director of B&C Farming in Marsham and a former county chairman for the NFU.
He said he was confident that the supply chain would adapt to divert potatoes into retail products – meanwhile his farm is one of many which has created “mini supply chains” to sell surplus potatoes from their farm gates.
READ MORE: Subscribe to our daily coronavirus newsletter, with all the latest from where you live“There is a lot of uncertainty in the food chain, but people will still want to eat meals so they will be able to substitute those potatoes into other products that people can buy – but I don’t think anyone has any intelligence yet on exactly how and where they might be able to do that,” he said.
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“What we are seeing is that the sales for retail processed potato products are very good. They just haven’t got to the level where they have replaced the potatoes from the restaurant downturn.
“What has happened in the trade is that these businesses have said to growers if you have the opportunity to cut back a bit, would you do that?
“My response to that is to say hold on, we don’t need a knee-jerk reaction here because there is still a huge amount of people in the country who need to eat and they are not all going to switch over and eat pasta.
“It is a conundrum. Everyone in the supply chain is thinking: How long do we have to manage this imbalance? Is it three weeks, as we were originally told, or will it be six weeks, or through until the end of September, as some commentators are saying? No-one really knows the implications of those scenarios.”
READ MORE: ‘We need to pull together’ - Potato farmer delivers to homes in need during lockdownMr Bambridge said while processors used specific potato varieties suited to particular products, there was no reason why potatoes grown for one purpose could not be used for another.
“Your Russet Burbank makes fantastic McDonald’s fries, and your home oven chips would probably be Maris Piper,” he said. “But does that mean Russet Burbanks couldn’t go into oven chips? No it does not. It just wouldn’t be quite as good as you would normally see. You can make chips and mash from a Russet Burbank just the same as you could make fries from a Maris Piper. A potato is a potato at the end of the day.”
Like several other Norfolk farmers, Mr Bambridge is selling surplus potatoes from a pallet with an honesty box outside B&C Farming’s premises at Wood Farm on Buxton Road in Marsham. His daughter Sophie, also a manager at the firm, has been delivering bags to customers within a five-mile radius, and to a foodbank in Norwich.
Nationally, the NFU has also reported some growers have had difficulties getting potato stocks to packers and processors, or to obtain seed potatoes for the current planting season, due to a lack of transport.
But Mr Bambridge said he had not seen any of those issues in Norfolk. “I am sure there has been some disruption, but there has been a steady stream of people coming into us to collect seed and product,” he said. “We are distributing close to 8-9,000 tonnes of seed potatoes and I don’t think we have kept anyone waiting for those.”