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This article is part of our collection on Agriculture

The potato industry: from floods to coronavirus

The 2019/20 season has certainly been one like no other, says Alice Bailey, senior analyst at the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB).

Last updated: 10 Sep 2020 4 min read

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The wet autumn and winter of 2019 caused big problems for potato lifting. Some growers had to abandon fields and for many it was the longest lifting they remember.  

The difficulties for the 2019 crop didn’t end there. The pandemic struck the UK part way through the marketing year, bringing more challenges to the industry. 

This resulted in an almost complete loss of market for the fresh chipping sector and much of the processing sector in March. It’s key to note that the crisping side of processing was largely protected due to the strong links and continued demand through retail outlets.

Although Kantar data has shown increased sales of frozen potato products throughout lockdown and beyond, this has not made up for the losses from foodservice. It is estimated that c. 55% to 60% of the processing market is in foodservice, and so it’s no surprise this sector felt the impact harder than the fresh market, where c. 75% to 80% of sales are through retail.  

At the point of the foodservice closure we saw prices for fresh chipping material disappear. It wasn’t even a case of prices crashing. For most, it was a case of no price at all. Fortunately, this was shorter lived than many had initially feared.

However, once fish and chip shops had adjusted in order to continue trading under the new government rules and regulations, some trade returned, albeit in very low volumes that pressurised farm gate prices. The median ex-farm free-buy price for bagged chipping material from the East lost £110 per tonne in just five weeks. 

At this same point in time we saw increased demand for packing potatoes. In the week running up to lockdown (week ending 22 March 2020) retail sales of fresh potatoes tracked 65% above the same week last year respectively. Some growers of chipping or processing potatoes chased sales into retail where specifications and quality allowed. Although this allowed some growers who lost their market completely to make a sale, it eroded the low end of the packing market by £80 per tonne in just two weeks. 

The 2020 season 

Despite the challenges of the 2019/20 season and the coronavirus pandemic, the first estimate of the 2020 planted area is 119,000 hectares, just 1% down from the previous year. Coronavirus struck the UK at the time of potato planting, which left little time for growers to drastically change their planting intensions due to prearranged commitments. 

Lifting of the 2020 crop is now under way and the market remains under pressure. Although we have seen a return of pubs and restaurants, we have generally seen a shift in demand rather than an increase. 

For example, when we saw the return of major quick-serve restaurants we saw a shift in the demand from fish and chip shops. And similarly, since the Eat Out to Help Out scheme has been in place, we have heard that trade is just moving gradually to this sector from takeaways. 

The dining out industry is likely to take some time to recover fully. With the likeliness of further redundancies as the furlough scheme comes to an end, we are expecting to see recessional behaviours for some time.

Potatoes are generally deemed a filling and economic meal option and non-premium frozen products are also perceived to be good value. With this in mind we are likely to see a continued demand from retail. However, as disposable income becomes tighter the foodservice sector could feel the pinch for longer and as a result the processing sector could continue to be pressured, especially as contracted material will be utilised when possible. 

Click here for more information about AHDB.

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