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Are we witnessing the long, slow death of the potato?

Spud-u-don’t-like? Mihai Petre

Dig into the British potato statistics and you might find cause for concern. The volume of fresh and processed potatoes Britons are buying fell for the fourth year in a row last year to 2.29m tonnes, compared to nearly 2.5m in 2010. The financial sales figures have held up better, but they too fell last year, down 4% to £4bn across the UK, while in Scotland they fell nearly 40% to £170m. How worried should potato farmers be?

The long-term picture can be seen in the chart below. It shows that potato production has been in gentle decline since the 1960s as our tastes have gradually changed. From the days when British dinners were all about meat and two veg, one of which would almost always be potatoes, now we’re likely to be choosing pasta or rice instead, if not more recent arrivals such as quinoa or polenta.

The reason why the numbers move around so much each year is that weather conditions make a big difference. Dry conditions are required at planting time. Rainfall is important to bulk up the potatoes, but warm and humid weather also leads to problems with the disease known as late blight. Dry warm weather in the summer may lead to increases in aphids. Wet weather can severely hamper lifting during harvest, and early frosts can also cause damage.

Volume of harvested production in the UK 1885-2013

Note: data before 1922 correspond to Great Britain only. Defra

If this is the overall picture, there are some other interesting trends worth pointing to. First of all, the size of the planted area has been falling too – as you would expect. Apart from the massive increase in potato area during World War II as imports hit the buffers, the trend has been in one direction. In 1975 the UK’s planted potato area returned to the same level as it had been in 1897, and has kept falling ever since.

Total area planted with potatoes in the UK 1866-2013


But we need far less planted area to grow the same amounts of potatoes these days. The potato yield has gradually improved largely thanks to irrigation, improvements in soil management, and more effective machinery for seedbed preparation. The average production for the period 1960-2013 was in fact about 61% higher than the average for the period 1885-1938.

The rise of bigger farms

There has also been a big fall in the number of potato growers – down from 76,830 in 1960 to 2,190 in 2013. The industry has become more consolidated due to higher capital investment, with far fewer growers with small holdings in even just the past 20 years.

Potato production is now in the hands of fewer but more specialised growers who have to meet ever-increasing demands for high-quality product, especially for blemish-free, pre-pack potatoes for retail. At the same time there is increasing pressure for potatoes to be grown using integrated crop management principles under protocols and quality assurance schemes. These modern commercial and regulatory demands have made potato farming less attractive to smaller players.

Number of potato growers by size band in hectares (ha)

AHDB/Potato Council Planting Returns

Changes in consumer demand

The other important point is that you have to distinguish fresh and processed potatoes. The chart below shows the extent of the big decline in per-capita consumption of fresh potatoes.

Fresh potato consumption, 1940-2013

Defra/Family Food

But this has been partially offset by processed potato products, which also have steadily grown in importance as a proportion of all potato sales. This includes crisps, frozen chips and a range of foods/snacks containing potato flake.

Share of processed products in total potato purchases, 1974-2013

Defra/Family Food

The obvious conclusion is that farm produce has become less of a final product and more of a raw material, with more value created further along the supply chain. The food industry has gradually learned to make potatoes go further – even if it’s not the farmer that necessarily benefits.

This change in consumer demand has affected the types of potatoes that farmers grow. So although the multi-purpose Maris Piper is still the most popular variety, Markies and Lady Rosetta have become much more important because they are well suited to chips and crisps respectively. They both originate from the Netherlands.

Indeed, imported potatoes have become a much larger part of the picture – mostly as part of processed foods. Most of them come from the EU, principally Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Origin of potatoes used in the UK, 1986 to 2013


So while the UK potato industry is undoubtedly in long-term decline, there are some important qualifications. We are still producing nearly six million tonnes of them every year. And because yields have risen over the years, it has become more profitable to grow potatoes.

The industry has restructured to cope with the new reality, leading many smaller players to sell up or switch to farming different products instead. Its current structure is a response to the need to deliver quality, value and potatoes for different kinds of products, while coping with increasingly volatile agricultural markets.

Some of the industry has meanwhile effectively moved over to Europe, whose growers are better at supplying product for processed potato foods. Prices have also held up in real terms, despite the falling demand, so things could certainly be worse for those who remain. The situation may not be great but it is not as bad as milk, for example, where farmers struggle to cover their costs and are facing great uncertainty.

The challenge for the British sector, particularly the fresh-potato segment, is basically two-fold. First, growers need to stay focused on profitability, keeping a close eye as ever on yields and costs. Second is to make products more attractive by looking out for marketing opportunities to differentiate what they sell.

The likes of Albert Bartlett’s Rooster potato and Greenvale’s Farm Fresh are two potential examples to follow – both have managed to buck the downward trend by offering something new. Heritage potatoes are another, having marketed themselves as being part of a great tradition. More than 550 years after Sir John Hawkins first brought potatoes to England in 1563, over 6000 years after they were first cultivated in the Andes, this is the route to ensuring that they remain part of British farming heritage for centuries to come.

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