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Talking Potatoes with Rufus Pilgrim: Productivity

Productivity varies considerably from region to region. Variations are due to a diverse mix of cultural, political, environmental and social factors, all particular to the locality. Climatic conditions can bring both challenges and opportunities in equal measure.

Productivity varies considerably from region to region. Variations are due to a diverse mix of cultural, political, environmental and social factors, all particular to the locality. Climatic conditions can bring both challenges and opportunities in equal measure.

 

The pressure is on UK potato producers to be more competitive. In the domestic market there are pressures to maintain the fresh potatoes’ position as a key value item in the nations shopping basket, but also to counteract the threat of cheap processed potato imports, from Belgium and Holland especially. Potato consumption has declined by 20% in the last 10 years, to 101 Kg/capita. It has to remain a competitive offering to consumers.

 

For some the need is more basic – food and nutritional security for a growing population. In Kenya average yields are only 10t/ha, and 800,000 small farmers grow 150,000ha of potatoes. Low yields are largely due to poor agricultural practice. Currently there is little emphasis on the importance of rotation and good hygiene, there is the continual replanting of diseased ware as seed, and minimal use of inputs. Over time these issues are being addressed through education and the implementation of certified seed production programmes.

 

Increasing field production yields has had a considerable effect in improving productivity in the developed world. Crops in Europe and North America regularly top 45t/ha, but improving agricultural practice and using the right inputs has the potential to lift yields to 25t/ha in Sub-Saharan Africa.

 

Global productivity

 

It is not necessarily all about cold store busting yields. Production systems and supply chains outside the UK have evolved into far more basic models. There are the huge economies of scale for the large scale producers of North America, with systems capable of harvesting 60ha a day through one machine, all filling comparatively basic bulk storage systems; logistically difficult to replicate in the UK.

 

Potato supply chains in Northern Europe are geared up to be far simpler models. Producers are generally small farmers. There are 7000 in Belgium growing 90,000ha of potatoes. Growing on their own land, many having second jobs, reliant on family labour, and using highly mechanised contractors for harvesting.

 

Machinery is owner driven, well maintained and expected to have a long working life. Contrary to our traditions, process customers take on the task of grading and size splitting at centralised grading stations. All of these factors add up to a cost of production around 25% less than our own.

 

For the UK producer, fulfilling the demands of such a diverse and extensive market in comparison adds complexity, and consequently cost to our systems.

 

Innovation and technology

 

It is attention to detail that will deliver the greatest productivity progress. The use of precision technology and analytics to monitor, record and deliver the requisite variable applications. The AHDB SPot Farms initiative is just one such showcase for producers the UK to see ideas demonstrated in practice. Drone and satellite imagery is becoming common place to identify field variability, but also to measure yield potential. The Belgians are using it to control and monitor stock availability for its extensive frozen potato industry.

 

Shaun Paget from Riverview Farms, Hartland, New Brunswick has improved productivity on his farm by working through his production processes individually, reviewing and improving, and through incremental gains has lifted his farm from 58-63 suppliers 10 years ago, to now regularly featuring in the top 10 producers for the McCain’s factory at Florenceville Bristol in Canada. Measured by overlaying a combination of detailed field and soil analysis, imagery, and yield mapping.

 

Productivity improvements are not confined to potato growing. As margins continue to tighten, the whole supply chain looks towards improving throughput efficiencies with automated optical sorting and handling systems, to deliver consistency and to help reduce its labour demands. The constraints on labour availability are not confined to the UK, it’s an issue affecting many mature markets.

 

Better crop utilisation by processors especially, and reducing fresh consumption means fewer potatoes could be needed if we fail to close the differential between our production costs and those of imports. We currently import a raw equivalent of 1.5 million tonnes of potatoes - closing this gap is imperative.

 

Our European neighbours have learned to operate with more consistent, modest margins within a much lower price range; a case of adaptation through necessity.

 

Despite this, they are not settling into complacency. Their ongoing pursuit of productivity improvement is allowing them to push into new markets. We cannot afford to ignore these challenges.


Read More

Talking Potatoes with Rufus Pilgrim: Market intelligence Talking Potatoes with Rufus Pilgrim: Market intelligence
Talking potatoes with Rufus Pilgrim: Supply chain relationships Talking potatoes with Rufus Pilgrim: Supply chain relationships
The UK's leading potato supplier feels the chill The UK's leading potato supplier feels the chill

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