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Farming feature: UK potato growers 'very worried' as homegrown crop shortage looms

PUBLISHED: 16:58 26 July 2019 | UPDATED: 17:10 26 July 2019

James Foskett of James Foskett Farms  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

James Foskett of James Foskett Farms Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

Sarah Chambers

UK consumers may face a home-grown potatoes shortage next year as stocks run out due to new storage rules.

Potatoes grown at James Foskett Farms  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERSPotatoes grown at James Foskett Farms Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

Experts fear a 12-week gap could open up in the UK supply in 2020 as a result of the loss of the main chemical used on stored spuds.

But Suffolk farmers could play a critical role in helping to solve the problem, as an advice group for growers tries to work out potential solutions which can be used on-farm.

MORE - 'We can help fix UK's broken food system' say Norfolk and Suffolk's top farmers

Farm levy payers' organisation, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), has chosen James Foskett Farms Ltd at Bromeswell, near Woodbridge, to be its next Strategic Potato (SPot) Farm East host, starting from September 1, 2019. It takes over where the Elveden Estate - the previous host - leaves off in looking at how to help potato growers through the problems they face, and finding ways to produce the crop sustainably - and profitably.

One of the biggest problems facing potato farmers as they go into next year is the loss of a sprout suppressant called CIPC following a European Union-wide decision, which will have a knock-on effect on how long the crop can be stored.

James Foskett, AHDB's David Wilson and farm manager Mike Shapland  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERSJames Foskett, AHDB's David Wilson and farm manager Mike Shapland Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

Alternatives tried out so far are problematic, but the farm, which is owned by James Foskett and run by farm manager Mike Shapland, will be a test-bed.

Around 70 growers from across the region were at James Foskett Farms on July 18 as it gears up to become the next SPot Farm East.

AHDB knowledge exchange manager David Wilson said it had been a "fantastic day". The three big challenges for growers at the moment were the storage problem, the loss of active ingredients which can be used to protect crops, and staff retention and casual labour, he said.

"If you are a processing grower that stores a lot of potatoes the storage is the biggest concern," he said. "For the industry there could be a 12 week gap in the season where there'll be no UK potatoes to meet that demand."

James Foskett and his farm manager Mike Shapland  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERSJames Foskett and his farm manager Mike Shapland Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

Options immediately dropped down to 'second best', with limits on where and how they could be used, he explained. "This is our last season with the product, but the 2020 harvest and storage season we could be facing a challenge."

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Growers were "very worried", he admitted. "Part of the reason we had such a good turnout is it's extremely business critical."

There were new products approved in the Netherlands which they were hoping might provide a suitable substitute, he added.

James Foskett Farms farm manager Mike Shapland  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERSJames Foskett Farms farm manager Mike Shapland Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

Speaker Adrian Briddon, AHDB's crop storage senior scientist with AHDB's Sutton Bridge team, which conducts research in potato storage, said the loss of CIPC posed "a huge challenge" to the potato industry.

"The Sutton Bridge team have been planning for the outcome for a while and we have a number of projects under way to support store managers through this uncertain time. This includes research into alternatives and work ranking the dormancy of different potato varieties."

James said for all farmers, times were very challenging.

"Every day it gets more and more difficult right across the farming board, whether it's vegetables or cereal we get challenged more and more and the margins are tighter every year," he said. At the same time, there was no more money for their produce, he said.

James Foskett Farms becomes AHDB’s Strategic Potato (SPot) Farm East host in September 2019  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERSJames Foskett Farms becomes AHDB’s Strategic Potato (SPot) Farm East host in September 2019 Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

Staff retention was an area AHDB has been focusing on for some time, launching a professional management development scheme (PMDS) in 2010 to address the perceived gap in people management training within the industry, he said.

Speaker and PMDS graduate Rob Heywood of Frederick Hiam Ltd said availability of labour was becoming a major concern for growers, and recommended businesses try the course.

Mike and James said it had been a "good day", and they were pleased with the turnout. The farm employs 25 permanent staff and 74 seasonal workers and retention was good, said Mike, partly as a result of opportunities to rise through the ranks. Around half the core staff was from England, with staff from Rumania, Latvia and Bulgaria making up the rest.

On the chemicals site, James Foskett Farms has organic as well as conventional crops, providing growers with a useful baseline for looking at alternative methods for dealing with pests and diseases.

"It's even more of a gamble than growing conventional crops and your management and skillset and the equipment you have has to be a step ahead of most conventional growers," said James. "There's no fire engine treatment - you have to get it right."

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