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Next crisis in fields could be one of the worst potato crops in years

By Claire McNeilly

Published 05/08/2015

Dairy farmers protest at Sainsbury’s in Coleraine
Dairy farmers protest at Sainsbury’s in Coleraine

Farmers could be facing one of their worst potato harvests in years.

That's because a late spring followed by a wet summer and difficulties in securing arable land have posed problems for the local industry.

The poor weather has been exacerbated by rules governing the grants payable to potato growers and the land available to them, according to the Department of Agriculture (DARD). MLAs have raised their fears for the sector at Stormont and requested government support. In a tabled question, Upper Bann DUP MLA Stephen Moutray asked the minister for her assessment of the problems facing the potato farming sector.

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill said steps were being taken to tackle the farmers' problems.

"Some growers have had difficulty in securing sufficient land, or secured poorer quality land than in previous years", Ms O'Neill said. "I am also aware that the cold spring earlier this year has delayed the recent potato crop by four weeks and will likely impact negatively on yields."

New potatoes grown in Northern Ireland have arrived on the shop shelves two weeks later than usual.

Farmers in Co Tyrone said 2015 had been more difficult than in previous years owing to a later frost in May which destroyed a lot of potatoes.

Only potato crops grown in eastern parts of the province managed to escape the devastating effects of the frost which killed the first leaves of the plants.An Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) spokeswoman said it was a summer farmers will be happy to forget, with the weather delaying the harvest long after the crop should have been on the shelves.

"The problems began for growers with difficulties securing conacre land, because of the number of landowners that decided not to rent their land," a statement said.

"This left growers facing either high conacre prices or being unable to secure land for their crops - and this was at the end of a season in 2014 when prices were poor and cash was scarce on farms.

"The weather has been difficult this year for planting and growing crops, and as with other commodities the weak euro is giving competitors in the eurozone a big competitive advantage in the local and GB market.

"That said, farmers are optimists by nature, and farmers never stop hoping for a good harvest in the autumn and some tightening of supplies elsewhere to improve prices."

Lewis Cunningham, managing director at Craigavon-based Wilson's Country - potato pre-packers who supply supermakets and other food retailers - said the bad weather had led to a boost in sales.

"On the positive side, demand for potatoes is very strong at present," he said.

Mr Cunningham also said that it was too early to speculate on the harvest.

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