Agri-chemical company BASF has launched a new initiative to help UK growers unlock the potential – and the profits – of their potato crop.

Titled, ‘Perfecting Potatoes Together’, the initiative provides a platform on which the potato industry can come together to share experience, know-how and passion for developing and perfecting healthy potato crops.

“It’s undoubtedly been a tough year with the loss of more active ingredients, the pandemic and more extreme weather events,” said BASF marketing manager for specialities, Matthew Goodson.

“The combined effect is a very challenging environment in which to produce a profitable potato crop. We want to work together with growers and other industry experts, to help develop solutions that overcome these challenges. But to make this happen we need the support of growers and we’re asking them to join the community.”

For Hugh Black, a potato grower based on Backboath Farm in Angus, Scotland, these challenges are all too real. Mr Black said: “Climate change is certainly having an impact here. Now, for example, in the second week of April, I should be out planting potatoes but it is too cold. Soil temperatures should be somewhere between 6 and 8C but they are currently 1.5C - 4C and it’s very detrimental to crop establishment.”

Despite being nearly 700 miles away, Mike Renouard, business unit manager for The Jersey Royal Company, is witnessing similar changes.

He said: “Climate change affects us most years now. We are seeing much longer spells of continuous weather – either wet or dry. We start planting potatoes mid-winter and the last two have been among the wettest on record. The island is wholly reliant on surface water, so later in the season, big rainfall events hamper the application of crop protection products. We just can’t risk them getting into drinking water supplies.

“Extended dry spells are difficult too. We’ve tiny field sizes and can only irrigate 30 to 40% of our area at any one time. Even that involves laying pipes across roads and other people’s properties.”

Mr Black is growing 14 varieties of potatoes across 85ha of his 1000ha farm and with 45% of his crop grown for seed, pests and diseases are a real threat to his business.

“We’re trying our best to economically spread the risk from PCN. Currently we’re on a seven year rotation, though my target is ten. We’re also growing processing varieties, not because they are profitable, but because they help clean the soil.”

In Jersey, Mike widely deploys biological controls: “We’ve lost pretty much all the nematicides now so managing PCN is a challenge. Some fields have been in continual production for the last 100 years and we’re dealing with some relatively high populations. Our early crops help break the cycle on the early land and on the later land, we’re using caliente mustard as a break crop after the potatoes. We are also growing solanum sisymbriifolium, which is also known as ‘prickly potato‘, as a trap crop and testing new biocontrols which are yet to come to market.”

It is this sort of discussion, exchange of experiences and ideas which BASF hopes will underpin the new initiative, strengthening understanding between the company and growers, and improving the breadth and depth of knowledge transfer.

For farmers in BASF’s ‘Real Results Circle’, there's an opportunity to tap into the company’s R and D, and get insights into optimising crop and product performance. Participating growers will also be among the first to trial new products and help shape the future of BASF’s product and service offering.

“We’ve a really exciting pipeline for the potato sector with three new fungicides targeting late blight, alteraria and tuber disease, two new herbicides effective against grassweeds and tricky broadleaved weeds respectively, and two new insecticides – an aphicide and a biological wireworm control – all coming to market in the next five years,” explained Mr Goodson.

“While our products go through rigorous testing during the development and approvals processes, it’s not until you get them on-farm using real sprayers etc that you uncover the nuances of optimising efficacy.”