Dwindling stocks of potatoes from last year's abnormally small harvest, mean that the potato supply chain has been making moves to protect stocks, according to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB).

It estimated that GB growers' stocks to the end of November, 2018, to be 2.97m tonnes, which is the lowest at that point since 2016/17. Accurate predictions, though have been hampered by industry feedback on just how much of crop in store is fit for sale, after reports of potatoes 'running out of the door' at some ambient stores.

Drawdown – the rate at which potatoes are removed from store – is, though, lower than recent years at 39%, or three percentage points below the five-year average.

Aidan Wright, AHDB's market intelligence analyst, said this is a sign of increased industry collaboration to make best use of what was a small harvest. “In contrast to 2018, the 2017 crop was a large one so in September there were still plenty of potatoes in store in good condition that could be used by some sectors to bolster this season’s supplies.

“Packhouses and processors have also altered specifications to reduce waste, in order to get the most out of this season’s crop. In addition, many growers delayed harvesting to allow crops to bulk following the drought during the summer, reducing the time prior to November that crops were marketed.”

The rate of drawdown from production in Scotland is estimated to be even lower at just 30%. This comes after slightly lower temperatures and higher rainfall led to a more successful potato harvest for Scottish growers, in comparison to their neighbours south of the Border.

At the same point last season, grower held stocks were estimated at 3.62m tonnes, while the lowest recent estimate was in 2012 when end-November supplies sat 0.3m tonnes lower at 2.66m tonnes. Mr Wright added: “Moving forward, the stock levels at the end of January, along with planting progress later in the spring, will likely set the pace for price movement for the remainder of the season.

“While the unseasonably warm weather is helping early planting, it is proving a challenge for those with ambient stores. Reports suggest that growers are being forced to move at risk stock due to breakdown, earlier than planned.”

AHDB has recently recognised the challenges store managers are currently facing, by releasing plans to support them with a fund of £800,000. Potato store managers will be able to call on information and support from this ring-fenced fund for sprout suppression and storage advice as the uncertainty around the future of popular sprout suppressant, chlorpropham (CIPC), continues.

There have been several delays to its re-approval for use in the EU, which is used to reduce sprouting on more than 80% of potatoes stored in the UK. The EU’s Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (SCoPAFF) was scheduled to vote on the renewal of CIPC’s approval for use both as a herbicide and as a sprout suppressant at its December meeting – but a vote did not take place. It is on the agenda to be discussed again at the meeting in January. The European Food Safety Agency’s recommendation remains non-renewal. The use of CIPC has already been approved for the current (2018-2019) storage season, at the same rates as last season.

In addition to the uncertainty on the status of CIPC, the popular crop desiccant, diquat, has lost EU approval, with 2019 being the last growing season it can be used. Also, maleic hydrazide, a growth regulator used for sprout suppression, has been re-approved but changes to its label may reduce the extent of its practical use in the field.

Dr Rob Clayton, strategy director at AHDB Potatoes, said: “The companies who hold the licences to distribute CIPC continue to work towards its re-approval. We have been monitoring this situation closely for some time and supporting growers and the industry in choosing sprout suppression options during this turbulent period is a top priority for AHDB Potatoes." However, he also added that money was being channelled into research on alternative sprout suppressant products, including natural control methods.