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Potato crop in danger after months of extreme weather in Northern Ireland

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Wilson’s Country agronomist Stuart Meredith and Co Down potato grower Raymond Patterson (left)

Wilson’s Country agronomist Stuart Meredith and Co Down potato grower Raymond Patterson (left)

Wilson’s Country agronomist Stuart Meredith and Co Down potato grower Raymond Patterson (left)

Rain is urgently needed to save this season's local potato crop, an industry figure has warned.

Stuart Meredith, an agronomist with Wilson's Country potato firm, said a particularly wet autumn, followed by one of the driest springs on record, had caused severe problems that had led to eight months of "absolute extremes for growers".

"Last autumn's heavy rains severely curtailed the 2019 harvest, with the result that many crops had to be over wintered in the ground," Mr Meredith added.

"The reasonably benign weather conditions in February allowed growers to get the harvest cleared up at that stage, but it really was a skin-of-the-teeth operation.

"However, no sooner had growers started thinking about this year's planting season than the weather turned in the opposite direction entirely."

Northern Ireland had its sunniest April ever, according to Met Office data.

Mr Meredith said the soil was so dry that there was insufficient moisture in the ground to allow growers get their work completed to a suitable standard and that all potato crops needed "significant rain now".

"Where Comber earlies are concerned, it's a case of getting sufficient moisture into the soil now," he added.

"This would allow crops to bulk up sufficiently in time for a mid-June harvest".

The east of Northern Ireland has been worst affected by the lack of rain.

"Conditions are extremely dry in parts of Co Down, especially on land that has been ploughed for a few weeks. Growers are struggling to get drills formed as it takes a certain amount of moisture to hold the drill in place," Mr Meredith said.

"De-stoning is an integral part of the potato planting process. These machines are set up to work with a certain amount of moisture, but with no soil sticking to webs this year, more stones than normal are falling through the webs and into the seedbed.

"This may well create major problems for the growers whenever it comes to harvest time." The agronomist said overly dry growing conditions could lead to issues around potato quality at harvest.

He explained: "The weather is still not critical for the majority of recently planted crops as they will be growing away from the seed. When crops start to take root in two to three weeks' time, issues will arise.

"If the dry conditions continue, a lot of the fertiliser will not be available to the crop without moisture to break it down and release the nutrients.

"Following emergence of the crop, tubers will form 10 to 15 days later. This is a critical time for moisture to have scab-free potatoes at harvest. Obviously, with current drills powder dry, it will take a lot of moisture to get to where it's needed to keep crops scab-free. Some growers will be forced to look at the option of irrigating crops over the coming days."

Belfast Telegraph