Too parched for potatoes if irrigation is not available

After two out of four dry years, many farmers are seriously considering the future viability of a water-intensive crop like the potato.

An unusually dry summer for much of the UK this year came following a dry growing season in 2018, leading some growers to wonder which fields might continue to be suitable for future planting of potatoes.

Potatoes on lighter soils without irrigation have seen poor yields this year in many parts of Britain. It seems likely that all but heavy soils will need access to irrigation for successful cultivation, as extreme weather conditions seem to be becoming more common.

Speaking to The Scottish Farmer, Agrico UK chief executive Archie Gibson said: “We have now had two out of four dry years. In parts of eastern Scotland and most of England, if you can’t water your potatoes you’ll wonder if you should plant them. Many farmers have installed reservoirs and more will need to be built to cope with the dry summers.

“Places like Norfolk need a lot of reservoirs if they don’t have access to groundwater. On lighter land many farmers have been lucky enough to grow potatoes, but these two dry summers will have forced you to rethink. If you don’t have irrigation, you have to stop and ask yourself, is it wise?

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“Given the inability of farmgate prices to keep pace with costs, it seems likely that total planted acreage will decline in the near term. I would say that we are looking at a smaller acreage of potatoes planted in the future. ”

Since the AHDB stopped reporting acreage planted with potatoes it is difficult to get accurate data, but anecdotally it is clear that farmers are looking at the acreage they intend to plant to cultivate. Following a vote to cancel the potato tax and the work of the AHDB in this area, there are no longer any official figures released on the potato sector for Britain.

The extreme summer heat caused many crops to stop growing. Much of England has seen the mercury approach 40 degrees Celsius, which is stunting plant growth. Other countries like Spain or Egypt that also experience similar temperatures tend to harvest in the spring before the temperatures get too high. Worryingly, some of the varieties that have shorter 90-day growing cycles were shut down during the hottest periods and failed to restart when the temperature dropped, leading to disappointing yields.

Even much of the irrigation during the peak of summer was wasted because the water evaporated before it reached the plant. The high heat and lower yields have not only occurred in the UK, but in all northern European countries that grow potatoes during the summer. This may well cause many growers to plant earlier so potatoes can emerge before the summer heat, which could increase late summer demand.