Friday, December 15, 2017

Spud-u-like – or maybe not

December 1, 2017 by  
Filed under Clodhopper

You can make a lot of money growing potatoes. But you can lose a lot too, says Clodhopper.

It’s not very often I am lost for words but a month helping out a friend with his potato harvest has certainly opened my eyes.

The last time my land saw potatoes was during the hot summer and wet autumn of 1976. Since then, I have listened over the years to potato growers explain the problems they encounter on a daily basis but I never realised the extent of work involved.

A labour shortage and a quick call encouraged me to help my friend. The lifting of the potatoes was as expected. The harvester was expertly set to minimise damage to the crop and with the weather being kind the 70ha was lifted and stored by bonfire night.

But the work involved after the potatoes hit the trailer floor surprised me. First, the reliance on a gangmaster to supply the pickers-off was like a who’s who. It was seldom the same team and it was not unusual for somebody to work a day on the grader and then not turn up again.

I suspect the long hours and minimum pay added to the boredom of picking off clods and damaged potatoes. My farmer friend explained that he had to sell some of the crop quickly during harvest every year because he didn’t have enough storage for the crop.

Merchants

For as long as he can remember, he would have orders from potato merchants asking for anything from 5t to 27t of bagged potatoes on a regular basis. That was ok with the price at £300/t in 2016 but this year he was struggling to get an order. And if he did the price was only £75-95/t.

With a 15% increase in planted area this spring and the fact that most growers were achieving excellent yields, the merchants were in control. They had a wide selection to of growers to choose from. And three out of five orders were returned for bruising issues.

These potatoes were either left in bags or re-graded. With the extra haulage charge it was a costly exercise. And it was questionable whether some of the potatoes were bruised at all. As my farmer friend said, last year you could have sold the potato peel to customers. But this year, every possible complaint was coming out of the woodwork.

What amazed me was the good potatoes being thrown away. Having stood on the bagging unit I saw cut potatoes, mishapen potatoes and even over-sized potatoes all discarded or confined to the stock feed bin.

Wrong word

Perhaps over-sized is the wrong word. Maybe ugly is better. Or better still, not fitting with the eye of the chipping trade or the customers’ eye. In a world of starvation and hunger, these potatoes could have been used for local food banks or charities.

Luckily my friend had the sense many years ago to sell 40-50 % of his crop on contract to a well-known firm. What impressed me regarding the buyer was the agreed price. It was worked out to the last penny to ensure the grower received a profitable return.

With the open market price last year being some £300/t, the £140 offered on contract did not look particularly good. But in 2017 the roles are reversed. What was pleasing to know from a grower’s point of view is that a decent notice period was given to collect the contacted tonnages.

The buyer also seemed happy to accommodate not-so-perfect shapes or sizes. I soon understood why most growers now favour storing potatoes in boxes. But with little or no orders at harvest, the frantic search for extra boxes soon became a problem for most farmers in 2017.

Having finished harvest, some of the graded and boxed crop had to be tipped again into the bagging unit and re-sorted. A few more rotten potatoes were found alongside any missed clods. But the number of potatoes that dropped through to be sold as stock feed amazed me.

No answer

My friend didn’t answer when I asked how much waste came from a 60t/ha crop. Like most crops, these days, it seems yield is everything. Without it, nothing stacks up. It is rollercoaster ride for growers. For bagged potatoes, I believe the breakeven point is about £150/t.

Every grower has a different view on this and prices vary. But I am still unsure whether growers would like a stable price year-on-year or accept the market turmoil? I guess it should be assessed over a five-year period.

So, after my brief experience, how do I feel about potatoes as a combinable crops man?

Well, like most farmers, potato growers are either bragging about profits or moaning about losses. Last year saw a healthy return. This year may not be the same. But I do know for sure they have to work a damn sight harder than us combinable growers – so good luck!

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