THE BOOM and bust cycle of the Great British potato industry continued this week with news that stocks here are up by 23% on the previous season.

AHDB this week said that stock levels for the end of November were estimated at 3.6m tonnes – the highest level for that point in the season since 2011/12.

The high production in the 2017 growing season was the result of a 5% increase in planted area to 122,779 ha coupled with one of the highest average yields on record of 49.3t/ha. In the grand scheme of things, this means that while there may be more potatoes to sell, the drop in price is hardly enough to 'make up the numbers' and many producers are struggling to hit budget, though in-store issues may yet influence the market.

The difference between this year and last is marked. Last year, the gap between general white potatoes and Grade 1 Maris Piper was no more than £30 per tonne, while this year the gap is £100 per tonne.

This year to packing stations, Grade 1 MP is worth around £165 per tonne, while last year it was making £260-280, with the general white market sitting at £56 this year and at £210-£230 last year.

English prices are fairing slightly better, with Grade 1 MP at £240 – which is not far off last year's mark – with general whites at £76.

The average weekly price on February 1 was £146, with a 'freebuy' market at £87.72, which is in stark contrast to last year when the average was distorted by shortening supplies. This meant the freebuy price hit £250 against an average of £210.

Amber Cottingham, an analyst for AHDB Potatoes, said: “Last December, we estimated the GB production figures to be up by around 15%, at 6.04m tonnes, so the increase in stocks held in store has been expected.

"With much of the season still to come, high production figures suggest that it is unlikely that potato supply will be as tight as it was over the previous two seasons."

She added: “We only measure the amount of crop in stores and not the quality, and we are aware that there have been storage quality issues reported, which could impact volume of the marketable stocks later in the season.

“If we compare data taken from our new Potato Data Centre we can see that production last reached the 6m-tonne mark in the 2011/12 season. However, from this point, there are two diverging routes depending on your viewpoint.

"If we take into account the advances that have been made to utilise crops more efficiently in recent years, coupled with improved storage capability, we may see a slowing down of crop use as the season progresses.

“On the other hand, this is highly dependent on crop quality and reports suggest there have been quality issues this season due to poor conditions at harvest. This could have affected quality as crops went into store, which could thus impact wastage in store and actually lead to a faster drawdown in stocks.”

* The survey covered grower held stocks only and does not include stocks held by purchasers.