The UK’s potato crop has got off to a stuttering start as the early planting regions of the UK are already weeks behind schedule.

The relentless wet weather this winter saw local reports from Pembrokeshire described as six weeks behind a typical year.

Further south in Cornwall, growers have only half the potatoes they would like in the ground. Meanwhile the island of Jersey is also well behind where growers would expect.

The Scottish Farmer: Potato prices are up on the year Ref:RH170420953 Rob Haining / The Scottish FarmerPotato prices are up on the year Ref:RH170420953 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer

Much of England has suffered from heavy rainfall making it impossible to get machines into fields. Secondly, temperatures have been too low to warm soils ready for tubers.

Some modest progress has been made in the Midlands on well-drained lighter soils. Similarly, growers in East Anglia have planted Maris Piper and Maris Peer for processing in warmer soils.

In Scotland, some potatoes have been planted in East Lothian and a tiny amount in Ayrshire. Much of the rest of Scotland will be waiting for the ground to dry and warm up before putting seed into the ground. Since October, eastern areas of the country have been regularly soaked by storms and showers.

Industry experts are predicting little activity in the fields until April for the main production areas, which will tighten the planting window and increase pressure on staff and machines.

The Scottish Farmer: Last year England and Europe suffered virus in potato plantsLast year England and Europe suffered virus in potato plants

Seed shortage

Tight supply of seed potatoes in the UK and Europe is causing further problems. Demand is strong as higher prices have tempted farmers to increase their acreage, but availability of seed is the limiting factor.

Some farmers are resorting to cutting tatties for seed, but agronomists are anxious that this could increase the disease pressure on crops.

Last year’s harvest is still having an impact on growers. Three storms in succession battered the east coast and delayed lifting potatoes for weeks on end.

Throughout October and into December, the weather affected proceedings with many fields of potatoes lying under water over Christmas.

Growers will be assessing the potential yield from unharvested crop before making a decision to take the tatties or send in the grubber. Some of these abandoned fields are seed varieties for the UK market which took a lower priority during harvest.

Fields destined for export faced a tight window of December 5 to gain access to the Egyptian market, so these potatoes took precedent. This has further tightened the supply of seed for domestic growers.

Adam Young, manager of operations at Agrico said: “It was an exceptionally difficult harvest for potato growers.

“For the fields left, they will be assessing the amount of flooding or frost damage. The higher prices are tempting growers to think about going back in with harvesters to fields that have lost half their crop. Some fields have had kit stuck all winter.”

Last year was a difficult one for virus in the potato crop, with growers expecting a carry-over into 2024.

While Scotland was let off lightly compared to England and the continent, growers are encouraged to remain vigilant. Other disease pressures have come from the wet weather affecting potato stores which has caused an increased instance of scab in tubers, which can spread throughout sheds if not tackled.

Strong and steady prices

Currently there are some shipments of seed potatoes heading to the Canary Islands for immediate planting.

Meanwhile, coming the other way, Cyprus is exporting some potatoes to the UK but the bulk of their exports are destined for the Low Countries and France.

The conflict in Gaza is interrupting Israel’s potato exports as much of the potato land runs up to the Gaza border near the fighting.

The UK market at the moment is reluctant to push prices any higher, but production costs are inflating, plus there is still the continued effect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

On the year, potato prices look to be 15% to 40% up. However, with so many tonnes on contract, relatively few farmers are able to

take advantage of a strong spot market but the rising market will increase prices offered for harvest 2024 crop.

Main crop Scottish white potatoes are trading at between £380/t to £410/t. Further south, prices are strong with best quality white potatoes achieving up to £525/t but volumes at this level are small.

Maris Piper is running between £475/t to £500/t with top red potatoes making £600/t and above. Baking potatoes are selling at £900/t to £1000/t while good quality frying trades at £450/t to £520/t. Meanwhile, peeling potatoes are between £250/t to £300/t.

Since October, merchants have been working hard to secure their supply for the coming year as a tight supply has been well forecast. As a result, prices are stable with buyers not overheating the market to produce price spikes.

However, moving into April and May, if imported potatoes from abroad are short, then a price lift is predicted. Dry weather in Spain is reducing supply forecasts and could see growers with unsold potatoes in stores in a strong position.

As Scottish growers look to begin putting seed into the ground, there is confidence that 2024 could see a greater market reward to offset the spiralling costs from the last few years.