THE UK’S largest field-based potato event is missing from this year’s calendar and will be sorely missed by growers, agronomists, researchers, and manufacturers, who would come together to discuss the direction of the industry for the months ahead.

Potatoes in Practice has grown arms and legs since it began over three decades ago and was in the habit of welcoming between 650 - 800 visitors yearly to its site in Balruddery to see the latest variety demonstrations, get up to date on research, take in the trade exhibits, network across the industry and catch the live machinery demonstrations.

To mark what would have been the annual Potatoes in Practice gathering this week, The SF caught up with some of the individuals who had been involved with the event over the years to get an understanding for how it has become the flagship event for the industry it is today.



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Well-known seed grower, Jim Cruickshank, was part of the British Potato Council responsible for setting up the event 33 years ago and explained why such an event was needed at the time.

“We had a simple but important objective, to improve communication throughout the supply chain and ensure seed growers and the ware industry worked closer together,” said Mr Cruickshank.

“Potatoes in Practice provided a venue to explore research in the sector, but it is just as much about communication than the science. The more we communicated with the wider industry, the better we can look to adapt to changes and move forward on the same path.”

The event always took place in the middle of August, which Mr Cruickshank explained was a key factor: “This time of year, in August, seed crops going are through inspections, being burnt off, and it gives our customers the first chance to see the crop in the ground prior to lifting.

“Over the years, customers take the opportunity to come to Scotland to meet everyone they want to meet and often spend another couple of days going on to growers farms to look at how their crop is looking.

“The science and all the latest research is the catalyst which brings everyone here, but building relationships is the most important part of the event.”

From what started as a small event at Gourdie Farm, in Invergowrie – attracting around 50 visitors – Potatoes in Practice has now become the flagship event in the industry’s calendar, pulling in up to 800 visitors to Balruddery.

One of the men responsible for growing the offering of Potatoes in Practice and introducing live machine demonstrations to the agenda, was Euan Caldwell – head of farms, field and grass at the James Hutton Institute.

“I’ve been involved with Potatoes in Practice since the beginning and it all started with showcasing what was happening on Gourdie, in the Scottish Crop Research Institute. There were no exhibitors, no marquee, no car park – what you had was a potato field,” he told The SF.

“In 2009, the event moved to Balruddery and we added in a marquee space for seminars and networking, grass pathways around plots to discuss new breeding material and varieties and opportunities for exhibitors – everything was about raising the profile of what we were doing.

“Around 10 years ago, we brought in live machinery demonstrations – that was my baby,” he continued. “It was a brave thing to do for, as an organisation, as it raised health and safety challenges, but it added great value to visitors as everybody wanted to see the latest technology up close and this often isn’t available elsewhere.

“It can be a challenge having 1000 people at an event with big working machinery, but it adds to the atmosphere and we have a solid risk assessment in place and a safe system.”

Reminiscing on past events, he recalled an occasion where a Dutch farmer thought it would be reasonable to climb on a combine as it drove up the field, which resulted in air horns being used and the whole place shutting down.

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“Some of the seminars which we have introduced have proved game-changing for attendees, such as our harvesting clinic, but also required bravery on our part,” Mr Caldwell continued.

“Telling someone what they might have been doing for 35 years is wrong required guts, but Potatoes in Practice wants to challenge people to step outside their comfort zone and to encourage everybody to be open to learning new ways of working.

“Our numbers have steadily grown over the years but striking a balance of hosting and respecting harvest is always on our radar. In times of torrential rain, we have had huge numbers flock to the event, and no one will ever forget the years where cars have been stuck in the fields, but our fantastic team is always up to the challenge.”

On a final note, Mr Caldwell shared his disappointment that the event was cancelled due to Covid-19: “Online events just don’t make up for the real thing, getting a mix of people all together interacting, you can’t beat it. Every year you meet new friends and customers, as well as catching up with old faces and we will be missing that massively this year.”

The Scottish Farmer:

For Claire Hodge, of AHDB, Potatoes in Practice is a marking point of the season, which brings everyone together to look at what challenges the industry might be facing, what opportunities lie ahead and what growers should be starting to think about in terms of managing their crops for the seasons ahead.

“I’ve been going to the event for 15 years and you always remember those wet years and being stuck in the car park and those warm summers where everyone is recording high yields – it is always such an exciting time of the year,” said Ms Hodge, AHDB’s senior knowledge exchange manager, who joined the Potatoes in Practice committee seven years ago.

“What had developed most over the past few years is the breadth of businesses that attend. All of the major breeding companies are there and they can demonstrate fresh ideas with field plots.

“It is a fantastic networking opportunity. You can be standing next to someone with the same challenges you might be facing at home and can have those discussions there and then.

“The field element is so important, and it open up a dialogue between growers and agronomists that you wouldn’t get anywhere else.

“The seminars are brilliant as we have speakers from all around the country and worldwide and we can explore how the science connects to what we are doing. It is really important to talk about the future and how we can protect the industry and our high health status,” she explained.

“It is an important event in terms of setting the season and expectations of where we are going as an industry.”

The Scottish Farmer:

AHDB’s Senior Knowledge Exchange Manager, Claire Hodge

Past events have often focussed on different diseases threatening the sector, usually depending on the weather that season. Last year’s event warned that there might not be a seed industry in Scotland in 30 years’ time if the spread of potato cyst nematode continued at its current rate.

This year would have likely covered the implications of Brexit for the industry and export access to Europe, but Covid-19 has dominated the nation’s policy agenda.

“English commercial growers are our biggest customer for Scotland, but they are going through difficult times in terms of the processing market and the loss of demand they experienced during lockdown, which they won’t get back,” Ms Hodge continued. “This begs questions as to what this means for crops in the ground just now and going forward through the winter. Through these uncertain times AHDB have prepared Market Intelligence advice to help the industry prepare. Storage advice and desiccation webinars have proved to be very popular as growers look for new crop management strategies."

As the UK looks to strike up new trading opportunities, managing disease risk and control will remain a top priority for the potato sector.

“Scotland’s Plant Health Centre is good at horizon scanning and identifying potential risk from neighbouring countries. It looks at whether there could be a threat in terms of weather and ground conditions etc and take measures to ensure stocks are quarantined. We don’t import seed potatoes to Scotland which offers another element of protection,” Ms Hodge added.

With the UK Government looking to launch a consultation on gene editing this autumn, this could potentially mean big changes on the cards for the sector if growers could be primed to embrace precision breeding technology at a future date.

“Embracing innovation on our doorstep is so important but not at the risk of compromising the integrity of our product which is our biggest asset,” said Ms Hodge.

“We are at a turning point in terms of technology and innovation that we can use in the potato industry and Potatoes in Practice is at the forefront in pulling together scientific organisations, as well as a network of growers and agronomists to have these vital discussions – which we are missing this year.

“We need to decide how we tackle particular issues going forward and what technology to embrace in order to lead the future of global potato production,” she concluded.