Great weather for spuds sees harvest arrive fortnight early
Northern Ireland's main crop potatoes are being harvested two weeks ahead of schedule after a year of perfect growing conditions.
The favourable conditions also contributed to an overall 5% increase in the total acreage of potatoes grown here - a trend replicated in the Republic and in Britain. Each year potatoes are sold into 96.6% of Northern Ireland homes, with consumers spending around £42m.
Consumers in the Republic spend €180m (£157.8m) on potatoes, with 97% of Irish households buying them.
Angus Wilson, chief executive with Wilson's Country Ltd potato growers in Portadown, said the first potatoes will be harvested during the second week of July.
"This is almost a fortnight ahead of the usual start date to the season," he said.
"The combination of heat, sunlight and moisture that has characterised the weather over recent weeks has ensured that growth rates have been above average."
Mr Wilson added: "The potato year begins, to all intents and purposes, on June 1.
"The good news for farmers is that there are no carryover stocks from the 2016 season. So, essentially we are starting from scratch in 2017.
"The increase in acreage would point to a degree of speculative growing by farmers, who are not specialist producers.
"There is also some evidence of traditional potato growers planting larger areas this year.
"But the increase in acreage will not automatically translate into an equivalent increase in tonnage later in the year.
"The weather from now until harvest time will determine the final size of the 2017 crop.
"Yields are a factor in this equation, as will be farmers' ability to get potatoes actually lifted, should the weather turn bad."
However, Mr Wilson warned the good conditions and increased acreage could mean an oversupply of potatoes, which may hurt prices for farmers.
He said: "The market is finely balanced. It'd take a small degree of oversupply to have a severe impact on grower returns."
Potato eating trends are also changing, with a spurt of growth being witnessed in the chilled potato convenience category.
Lewis Cunningham, managing director with Wilson's Country, says the latest Kantar figures confirm a slight decline in local sales.
He said: "The total value of fresh potato sales in Northern Ireland for the year May 31, 2017 was £42.19m. Volume sales on the year are also slightly down by a small percentage amount during the same period.
"When we analyse the detail of the figures it is clear that the reason for the slight decline in 2017 was lower than normal sales during the winter trading period.
"When we review the weather last year, we had a very mild autumn and winter really never arrived in 2017, so it's likely there were less hearty dinners, soup and stews on the menu compared to previous years."