Cultivation/Production, Europe, UK, Ireland

Weather plays havoc with European potato crop

The 2018 potato production season in many European countries turned out to be one that farmers would like to forget as soon as possible. Average yields are reported to be down significantly in most countries, with crop losses estimated to be as high as 30% and even more in places.

Global Potato News magazine spoke with a few potato farmers and industry people to learn about their experiences during this season.

Olivier Pilat is a potato farmer located in the community of Raray in the Hauts-de-France region of northern France, 30 km from Roissy Charles de Gaulle Airport. He produces small potato varieties such as Ratte du Touquet, Pompadour, and Charlotte for the fresh market.

“These varieties are very sensitive to high temperatures during the growing season,” he says. “This year, we had two serious problems: a low tuber set at the start of the season, and then extremely hot temperatures in July and August. I don’t have explication why we had a problem with tuberization. Our yields are 5 to 10 tonnes/ha less than usual.”

Olivier says that he irrigates his potato crop, but he believes his varieties are more sensitive to heat stress rather than dry conditions.

“Global warming is a reality,” he says “and we have to think about our future practices. Maybe we need to change varieties, and perhaps we need to lengthen our crop rotation cycle to 5 or 6 years. I plan on employing more sustainable practices, and also to enhance the quality of our soil to create less compaction for example.”

Olivier hopes that an investment in the health of his soils will ensure that his potato crop become less stressed during hot and dry summers. “But all of this takes time to materialize,” he says pensively.

Olivier says his customers demand products produced in an eco-friendly way – with less on-farm application of chemicals. “And at the same time, they want the highest quality for the lowest price, of course…”

Producing potatoes for the fresh market particularly is becoming very difficult, Olivier says, “which is why many potato farmers in France nowadays consider switching to processing contracts where they feel they have more security.”

Rufus Pilgrim is the Commercial Director of R S Cockerill (York) Ltd, a farming operation in Dunnington, a village and civil parish in the City of York and ceremonial county of North Yorkshire, England. Rufus told us that crop yields vary enormously on his farms this year, especially in unirrigated crops.

“Remarkably, although yields are mostly down, skin finishes are not too bad, with the exception of some of the older, more temperamental varieties like Desiree and Maris Piper were many crops have been badly affected by common scab,” he says.

Looking ahead to next season, Rufus says conventional sized seed availability is going to be compromised. “If anything, the effects of this season will make the supply chain look at the criteria for grower selection and contracting arrangements more closely,” he says.

“For those that have the opportunity, there may well be some investment in irrigation systems. The quality and yield differences between irrigated and unirrigated crops have been significant enough for many to be the difference between contract compliance or not.”

Rufus points out that for those that have failed to achieve forecasted tonnages, this is proving problematic, especially for the processing industry where there is a wide use of commercial proprietary varieties.

Egbert Jonkheer is an independent agricultural journalist in the Netherlands. “I do see that farmers are now investing in irrigation,” he says.

“Farmers along the important coastal potato production area do not always have the option to irrigate because of problems with water quality fit for irrigation use,” he points out. “However, all possibilities are tried by farmers.

There’s a technique some farmers use which is called ‘deep drainage’ where farmers dug drainage channels sometimes as deep as five meters below the soil surface to create ‘water bells’ in the underground. The water collected can be used, but the amount is often limited.”

Egbert says he expects the total acreage of the Bintje to drop even further than it did in recent years. Many farmers had problems with secondary growth of the variety when rain came late in the season after the drought. His opinion is that seed availability for the coming season might limit growers’ choices to switch to different varieties.

Johan Barendregt owns and operates his own farming operation near Schermerhorn, a village in the Dutch province of North Holland in the polder region.

Johan grows under contract for the cooperative Agrico, and he says his seed is exported to several countries outside of the Netherlands, including to countries in Northern Africa.

He says that his seed potatoes did not fair too bad this season and he expects average yields, but the crop he planted for the fresh produce market was hit by the dry and hot summer and will yield below average.

“The fertility and especially water retention capacity of the dark clay soils on my farm are of great importance during dry seasons like this,” he says. “These soils retain moisture longer than the sandier soils, and the plants most definitely tend to last longer before getting stressed during a dry spell than those potatoes planted on sandy soils.”

Johan is not irrigating his crops at this time, and although he is investigating the potential of irrigation for the future, he mentions the problem that many Dutch farmers have with surface water as irrigation source – the potential of infecting the crop with the feared and unwanted brown rot and ring rot diseases.

This article was first published in the new magazine Global Potato News

Editor & Publisher: Lukie Pieterse

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