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Potato industry facing meltdown

SUCH IS the concern over the state of the fresh potato supply chain that the Potato Council is to arrange an industry summit to be held early next year.

"Potato growers have endured one of the worst growing seasons ever and this has only served to highlight the structural problems we face," said Potato Council chairman, Allan Stevenson, speaking at a press briefing ahead of the seed industry conference in Crieff this week.

He said the weather had been the catalyst not the cause. "Isn't it appalling that contract growers find themselves as weak price takers with most of the weather risks on their shoulders? I have seen loose bakers in stores at nine times the contracted ex-farm price and other report even worse imbalances," he argued.

"It is absurd that farmers in Poland, with half our costs, are getting more than loyal suppliers here who signed contracts in good faith. Packers are losing money too and having a stressful season, so it is hurting all levy payers."

Mr Stevenson and his board on the Potato Council have a fine line to tread on marketing matters. The organisation is largely funded by levy payers but is a division of the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) which is in turn what is known as a Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB).

This puts it under the legal control of Defra and the guidelines are that bodies such as the Potato Council should restrict activities to promotion, research and development, and knowledge transfer. Mr Stevenson was, however, adamant that in the current grim situation, the Potato Council had to take a role in mending a broken market structure.

"This has to stop and surely we can provide some leadership in this instance even though we break a few eggs in the process. The milk guys make far more money than the potato guys but they have been far more successful in gaining public support mostly because there are far more of them. There are only 2200 potato growers and the number is shrinking fast," he argued.

Hence the urgency to hold the potato industry summit as soon as possible. All key industry stakeholders would be invited as well as government representatives. Asked whether he expected supermarket chiefs to attend Mr Stevenson said: "Well they will certainly be invited."

There are other ramifications from the 2012 season. Another factor is that some growers will not be invited back to rent land again on some farms – potato lifting has just left too much of a mess.out land again. And, high grain prices are encouraging a swing to cereal production.

Potato Council figures show that there is still 13% of the GB crop to lift with Herefordshire and some areas of Scotland trailing badly.

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