Belfast Telegraph

Growers fear wet October will lead to potato crisis

Wilson’s Country agronomist Stuart Meredith and managing director Lewis Cunningham examine damaged crop in Moira
Wilson’s Country agronomist Stuart Meredith and managing director Lewis Cunningham examine damaged crop in Moira

By Richard Halleron

The potato industry in Northern Ireland is facing a crisis caused by the weather, experts have warned.

Ground conditions in most potato fields are the same as what might be expected at the beginning of December, not October, according to Wilson's Country managing director Lewis Cunningham.

He said it had been "a stop-start harvest" up to now.

Mr Cunningham said the recent rain and impact of Storm Lorenzo was making life difficult for growers.

"We need a dry October across Europe, otherwise the 2019 potato harvest could quickly become a major challenge," he said.

Some main-crop potato fields were sown out late this year, adding to the concern. Mr Cunningham said: "There then followed a very cold June, which hampered growth significantly."

He pointed out that the vagaries of Northern Ireland's weather continues to be the main challenge faced by growers each year.

"Perversely, we are seeing some early crops of the variety Maris Piper coming out of the ground with skin defects," he said.

"This is a condition that we would only expect to see developing in the wake of a very dry growing season.

"But this was hardly the case in 2019. The likelihood is that the overall potato yields could be well down in Northern Ireland year-on-year as wet or flooded areas may not be lifted.

"Meanwhile, the unfavourable weather conditions will have done little to improve crop quality."

Mr Cunningham said that it will take until at least the end of October before the market prospects for the potato sector can be accurately assessed.

He explained: "We are now operating within a European market.

"It will take at least another month before the size of this year's harvest can be fully gauged. Brexit is another issue that we will have to factor in over the coming weeks."

It is not all bad news for the potato sector, he revealed.

The size of the industry in here is valued at around £46m in retail terms.

The sector has around 96% market penetration with consumers. In addition, volume sales are starting to show signs of increasing after many years of being in the doldrums.

Mr Cunningham added: "The food retail sector is on the rise and the potato industry is benefiting accordingly, especially with the rise in interest in vegan food."

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