EXTREME WEATHER has hit the tail end of the UK potato harvest for the second year running – and caught out the processing firms that rely on late autumn spuds to make the crisps, frozen chips and mash that see Britain through the winter.

As The Scottish Farmer went to press, it was looking increasingly likely that around 10% of the UK potato harvest, concentrated mostly in northern England, might be abandoned to the mud, and it was understood that the big manufacturers were scouring mainland Europe for replacement supplies.

Industry observers noted that, with Brexit still coming down the line, this might be the last time that British food businesses can turn to growers in Belgium, Holland and Germany for emergency stock.

In Scotland, however, it is thought that as much as 98% of the harvest is safely in – which offers no comfort to the UK processing sector as our growers' speciality is in serving the pre-pack market sold straight to consumers, using varieties unsuitable for most processors.

Recently published figures from AHDB Potatoes confirm that 2019 was the wettest harvest year since 2012 and the third worst autumn on record. Overall, GB growers battled through to lift up to 89% of the year's potatoes, but in some regions – like Yorkshire, which in October received 175% of its ‘normal’ rainfall – more than 20% of the harvest has yet to be lifted.

Director general for the Potato Processors’ Association, Andrew Curtis said: “This is the second consecutive year that the potato harvest has been impacted by adverse weather conditions. A high level of concern remains across the industry, and in particular within the processing sector, due to the fact that in some regions up to 23% of the crop still remains in the ground.

"GB potato processors are working with growers on scheduling to ensure maximum use of the usable crop," said Mr Curtis, who promised 'flexibility'.

SRUC potato agronomy consultant Stuart Wale observed that Scottish growers had done very well in the conditions: "But Scots are much more used to a wet harvest – they don't expect a dry autumn – but this year has rather caught the English growers on the hop.

"Our pack out will doubtless be lower, with more rejections, but our yield has been higher, so we shouldn't be short. Unfortunately, Scotland doesn't grow for processing – so the processors are having to look to the continent."

Professor Derek Stewart, of the James Hutton Institute, commented on the Scottish harvest: “Overall the quality of crops lifted earlier in the season was good. Those lifted in late October and early November have shown some deterioration in quality, due to difficulty of lifting or from disease issues, increased by the recent heavy rains.

"In Scotland there are occasional reports of rots appearing, but with no major concerns as of yet. Growers are being vigilant when it comes to storing on farm to reduce the risk of rots being carried into store and contaminating the rest of the crop.”