By Dr Keith Dawson

The potato industry this year, in the UK at least, has been a Tale of Two Cities dependent on markets, contracts, weather and the position and security of the buyer.

Some growers will be viewing the recent proposals from England for retirement schemes for elderly farmers with envy. Certainly, this is a year when some potato growers have aged considerably.

Others, on good pre-pack contracts, have had a far more positive experience, but for all, the balance between risk and reward has become more difficult.

Challenging times on prices and contracts were driven by Covid-19 closures of hospitality and tourism, hopefully now easing. Though, on a trip to the Lakes, last weekend, I was hearing a story, echoed in Scotland, of a huge

shortfall in staff for the hospitality sector due to Brexit.

To some extent it is little wonder that many growers voted against AHDB Potato funding, partly as a knee-jerk reaction to hard times and the risk and reward. But it was very short-sighted in a highly technical business, with a key need for marketing information.

In only 16 days, the AHDB will be ceasing its weekly potato market and pricing information and the wind down of other services will continue throughout this year. With a change in farm support and the global success story that is the Scottish potato industry, is there a way forward for more funding from Government as their farming support spend is repositioned?

The industry will need to act quickly and in concert to achieve a result in its favour. A crop with two seasons every year – one in the growing and the second in the storage and marketing.

Further challenges to the industry are the withdrawal of key crop protection actives and increased threats from key pests and diseases such as blight, potato cyst nemataodes (PCN), free-living nematodes (FLN) and spraing.

Whether your business is computer chips, or potato chips, the watchword is business ‘resilience’ in these times of Covid-19.

As a result of the AHDB vote the Scottish Society of Crop Research (SSCR) set up a potato stakeholder meeting, which aimed to facilitate an open discussion on the value of services to the potato industry currently supplied by AHDB Potato.

A survey has been constructed, in collaboration with NFUS, as industry concerns have now been made about the need for the continuation of some key services until now provided by AHDB.

The results of this survey will not be used to resurrect a different version of the AHDB, but rather to inform discussions with government and industry about what happens after AHDB has wound down.

This is to ensure that valued functions will continue to be carried out. It will also help start the process of identifying who should carry them out and how they should be funded. The survey can be completed here:

FAO figures last week announced a dramatic increase in the Food Price Index of almost 5% in May.

This is the largest since 2010 – a year I remember well on our farms in Ukraine and visiting farms in Russia, around Rostov on Don. Severe drought there caused a cereal export embargo for both countries.

On visiting Egypt, then the world’s biggest wheat importer (now it’s Indonesia) and Sudan at the end of 2010, food price rises were already hitting the populations hard. This led to the Arab Spring the following year.

Food poverty is now already hitting and for those with high percentages of disposable income spent on food, there is little room for manoeuvre. China, in particular, is ramping up potato production and is already the world’s largest producer, with 25% of global production.

Driving this is a major concern with water security, with potatoes 17-times more water efficient per unit of energy than traditional rice.

With all these global and local issues, including the effect of the Northern Ireland Protocol on Scottish seed exports, it is timely that it is planned to hold the UK’s largest potato field event this year.

Potatoes in Practice will take place actually in the field this year, Covid-19 permitting, on August 12 at the James Hutton Institute’s Balruddery Farm. Trial plots are now growing well in this long awaited better weather and a full range of exhibitions and seminars will take place.

It will be a great venue for an important Scottish industry to reconnect – we hope. As usual, SSCR, in its centenary year, will be financially supporting it amongst other sponsors.

A further event, this time virtual, of interest to potato growers will be Arable Scotland, on June 29. The programme will cover talks on IPM, sustainable rotations, cover crops and making the carbon economy pay on the farm.

At a recent Scottish Plant Health Centre meeting I attended, there were some alarming figures on crop protection withdrawals highlighted by Professor Fiona Burnett, of SRUC.

In potatoes, there are around 30 active ingredients at high or medium risk of withdrawal under EU regulations, in cereals and strawberries it is more than 50 for each crop.

The economic impact of this, of only compounds at high risk of withdrawal, could be as much 18% of total output value in potatoes, 38% in legumes and more than 40% in strawberries – a crop now worth more than wheat to the Scottish economy.

These are losses that cannot just be mitigated by replacements, increased IPM, or phasing. As Scotland’s first IPM-certified adviser, I know that IPM, whilst valuable, is no silver bullet, just as regenerative agriculture, or biostimulants aren’t.

Many growers are already adopting many IPM or TIBRE techniques in any case. The removal of diquat, mancozeb, linuron, nematicides and other actives all have major impacts on increasing costs and often reduce efficacy. We already lose 20-25% of our yield before harvest, even with crop protection.

Meanwhile, in some crops, such as oilseed rape, where neonicitinoid insecticides are now banned, imports from Australia and Ukraine, where they are still approved are allowed, thus creating a competitive disadvantage.

Its good that after a cold May, planting is now completed, although it will be a concern that rhizoctonia infection from this cooler, wetter spell will lead to blackleg in due course.

In Ukraine, we had already finished planting and temperatures warmed much earlier than in Scotland. More than adequate rain has replenished soils.

Blight pressure is now high and we are delighted we have both the new chemistry, like Zorvec and also the older, like mancozeb and chlorothalonil, to aid resistance strategies rather than unproven bio-stimulants.

Our crowdfunding raise was highly successful and oversubscribed and building work on our new storage and starch processing plant for bio-degradable packaging is proceeding apace.

The moratorium on agricultural land sales is planned for July so as is always the case in agriculture, wherever you farm, the only constant is change.