'THE FRENCH exit' – as it is known in England – is when you quietly sneak off from a social occasion without saying goodbye.

Naturally, the French, always happy to return the insult to les rosbifs, call it 'the English leave', although events of the past four years suggest that probably denotes a noisy, messy and delayed departure nowadays.

Kate and I attempted a French exit a few years ago. We were invited to the wedding of an old school friend of mine, it wasn’t a big wedding and we were delighted to be asked, but it was the end of a busy summer.

By 9 o’clock, we were running out of steam and couldn’t face the ceilidh, but didn’t want to offend our hosts. Kate called a cab and went to have a brief chat to the delightful bride without letting on.

Suddenly, the music stopped and the band leader literally screamed out on the microphone: “TAXI FOR PORTER!”

More of an English leave, or a walk of shame than a French exit then – and so it is proving with tattie harvest this year. At the end of September, many growers in Angus were irrigating potato fields as they were too dry to lift.

For those unfamiliar with growing potatoes, dry soil means not enough going up the harvester webs to protect the crop from bruising. Then on Wednesday, September 30 an inch and a half fell, followed on the Saturday by more than three inches, and harvesting ground to a halt for over a week.

It has been stop-start ever since, with trailed harvesters lifting at only half speed of 4-5 acres a day. Like many others, we are still not finished.

We have had over an inch of rain on three separate days last week and we have 17 acres of the ominously named The Bog Field to go.

They say you can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter – so dad tried renaming it The Orchard after I planted a five-acre wood in the poorest part as a 24-year old. It hasn’t changed the facts and we all still think of it as The Bog.

Our valiant Grimme harvester has done all it can and as I write, my good friend and neighbour’s split new Ploeger four-row, self-propelled, tracked harvester has come to the rescue, so hopefully we will be finished by the time you read this.

We have had difficult harvests in the past, but usually prices are high in compensation due to a reduced national crop.

According to AHDB figures there is still around 20% of the UK crop still in the ground, yields in Scotland seem to be mixed – there are some good crops out there, but also some very average ones. Quality issues will surely appear due to the very wet conditions, with bruising, rots and disease more likely.

Yields in England, which has 75% of UK production, are reportedly no better than average at around 50 tonnes/ha, and total pre-pack area is average at around 44,000 ha.

So, you would think this would all add up to a respectable starting price for potatoes? However, the packers clearly have enough available whites on contract up until Christmas and they have settled on a non-negotiable free buy price of as little as £60 per tonne after haulage, well below half the contract price for the same period.

Reduced sales of processing potatoes due to Covid-19 might have something to do with it, although processing planted area was already reduced by more than 7%, according to AHDB, to allow for this.

When it comes to the potato supply chain, we are most definitely not all in this together. I sold a couple of trial loads to set out my stall, but the cold store doors are closing now until we at the bottom of the food chain receive more gruel – I hope everyone else does the same. It can’t get much worse, so we have nothing to lose.

There are other concerns. The ban on Reglone means that the only dessicants now available rely on pulverising the shaws first, which is not an easy thing to do in a wet year.

Mancozeb, the core of blight anti-resistant spray programmes since 1961, is unlikely to have its licence renewed next year. Ferric phosphate slug pellets may be kinder on the environment than metaldehyde, but they are also kinder on slugs, particularly in a year like this, and my Maris Piper is as tasty to a slug as it is to us – the little brutes have left their mark here and there, and grading costs will be up as a result.

Seed potato growers are staring down the barrel of a Brexit gun as much of their crop is exported to Ireland, so there is a lot of pressure to grade, bag and move crops over the Irish sea before the transition period ends.

However, according to Archie Gibson, of Agrico: “Taking delivery of seed before December 31 to avoid the current prospect of a closed market is one thing, but customers then have to ensure they decant the tonne bags into clean CIPC-free boxes before being stored appropriately in positive ventilation, or chill stores. Not to do so adds real quality risks as well as cost.

"Trade with the island of Ireland has always been a bit like going to a wedding (getting to the Kirk before the bride) seed arriving just in time for planting."

Seeking a break from waterlogged fields, I took a trip down to the Blue-grey sale, temporarily moved from the Holm (Newcastleton), to the larger ring at Lockerbie for reasons of social distancing.

Rules on distancing restricted the number allowed at the ring to 57, with at least that many struggling to socially distance on the tic-tac outside, trying to find a vantage point from which to bid.

It was a very difficult situation, but everyone managed to keep their cool, and prices were strong, with six-month-old heifer calves making around £800; 16-18 month-old heifers averaged around £1200; and in calf heifers were making up to £2100.

I found it satisfying to know that we buyers were buying cattle at a fair price, and both buyer and seller were in a stable and sustainable relationship where everyone can make a profit.

If only the same were true of the potato supply chain ...