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Cold weather, national lockdown dull potato demand in Britain

Throughout February, free-buy and contract demand remained quiet across the board. Cold and snowy weather at the start of February, combined with the national lockdown, curbed many opportunities to eat out-of-home, therefore dulling demand, says Megan Hesketh in a report published by AHDB Potatoes.

She writes that February saw the release of the GB end of January stocks figures . This pegged grower held stocks at 2.11Mt, 39% of total production. This is 47.36Kt lower than last year (January 2020), but 40.86Kt higher than the 5-year average (2016-2020). Of that, 2.11Mt, 61% has been previously sold either as a forward sale or on pre-season contracts. This suggests contracted movement will continue to dominate potato trade into March and beyond.

The government’s roadmap for easing lockdown restrictions was published at the end of February. This release put key dates in the diary for potato markets, with the first step to open schools in England on 8 March. For summer, many consumers are reportedly hoping and planning for domestic holidays. However, this is under the premise that no curve balls throw the roadmap off course. The release of these lockdown lifting dates has helped breathe some optimism into the market.

As growers look to decide area for next season, forecasts and industry speculation point towards a reduced potato area in 2021. With 2 years of pressured prices and weather challenges for some, this may be unsurprising. However, if planting conditions are more clement this season, in conjunction with the roadmap, some may give potatoes ‘another go’.

Trade overview

Free-buy

Free-buy markets remained quiet through February. Pre-pandemic, industry sources said that trade would usually pick up at this time of year. From the end of January to end of February, the WAPS free-buy price fell by £3.29/t, to £132.04/t, despite some fluctuations.

Contract

Most trade remains to be fulfilled on contract across the different sectors. The overall WAPS price (including both contract and free-buy price) fell by £5.43/t over the same period (end of Jan to Feb), to £164.58/t.

Sector overview

Packing

In February, the packing sector remained the most dominant, due to restrictions on eat out-of-home opportunities. Demand remains mostly on contract, with free-buy volumes lower than usual throughout February.

Maris Piper continues to be the favoured packing variety, with Maris Piper in free-buy markets extending their premium to Whites by £40 during February. Whites demand is lagging, said industry contacts, going into March. Grade 1 White varieties found a steady price level of £90-£100/t in February, with quality key to price obtained.

Bags

With England still in lockdown, February trade for the bags sector has been slow and low in volume. While reduced footfall in fish and chip shops is typical for the start of the year, it is usually expected to start picking up moving into February. There is hope the government’s roadmap may boost sales in the coming months.

Reports have surfaced this month of potential quality issues of some potatoes lifted wet. With persistent low pricing for bags trade, quality has become an important parameter for sale. As we head further into the season, it will become clearer if quality is holding.

Processing

Through February, most processing trade continued to be met on contract for peeling and frying jobs. Free-buy loads were mainly repeat orders or ‘top-ups’. With schools returning on 8 March, this is positive news for the processing sector.

Free-buy processing prices reported in Potato Weekly show Maris Piper continuing to hold a premium over Whites, due to demand for specific processing jobs.

Source: AHDB

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