WITH 10% of last year’s potato crop still in the ground in Northern Ireland, some farmers have recently rushed out in the good weather to try and salvage them – though they’ve had to give up this past week.

The dry break in the unusual winter weather has given some potato farmers hope of saving the last of their crops before any inclement weather sets in.

One of those farmers on a rescue mission is North Down grower, Derek Erwin, who farms with his son, Ethan. Taking advantage of a recent few days of dry conditions in late January/early February, the father and son team were attempting to harvest a crop of Cultra, on the outskirts of Dundonald, which they first started into last October.

Derek said: “The potatoes should have been lifted before the end of October. But the constant rain at that time made completion of the harvest just impossible.

“The crop was planted out in perfect conditions during the second week of May and usually north Down is one of the driest parts of Co Down. We have a rain gauge on the farm and annual rainfall levels for this part of the world usually come in at around 30 inches. For 2019, that figure increased to 45 inches. That’s 50% more rain than we would normally receive.

“The rain started in earnest around the second week of June. And it never stopped for long enough to allow us get on with the harvest at the back end,” he added.

Derek expected that the crop yields in the fields now being harvested will be down between 15 and 20%. He said: “That figure is made up by a combination of winter kills and potatoes that simply rotted in the wet conditions. However, those potatoes that are making the boxes are of surprisingly good quality. Skin finish is excellent and tuber size is very even.”

Wilson’s Country agronomist, Stuart Meredith, recently visited the growers to inspect the potatoes. He said: “Potato crops still in the ground have wintered surprisingly well. But it remains a race against time to get them harvested.

“Several nights of hard frost could do serious damage to these crops. And that remains a possibility, given that we are still at the beginning of February.”