East Anglia is famed for its potatoes but the crop requires a high level of investment and this can be difficult to justify in years when the returns are low.
This is driving a trend in the industry towards smaller numbers of larger growers and the introduction of marketing groups to provide economies of scale and greater negotiating power.
One of these growers’ groups is Greens of Soham, the UK operating company for Spearhead International. Managing Director Julius Joel says that the company directly farms 5,500 hectares and a significant proportion of this is for potatoes for seed, salad and processing.
“Investment in R&D is important to us. Looking back there hasn’t been one game changing move that made a difference but more an amalgamation of small improvements that have provided marginal gains.
“We are looking to use a variety of tools better in small ways with the aim to avoid low yield in production. We want to maximise the average and the best and mitigate the risks.
“We value the work of the Potato Agronomy Unit and provide a trials service to several breeders to encourage the development of new varieties.”
The Potato Agronomy Unit was formerly part of the University of Cambridge but Head of Agronomy, David Firman, says that its research has benefited from its recent move to NIAB.
“Access to a wider range of facilities and expertise at NIAB has allowed us to expand our range of research activities and these were recognised earlier this year when we were awarded the Practice with Science Award at the Oxford Farming Conference.
“Part of the new focus has been the use of modeling for determining seed requirements and water use and also for forecasting yield.”
Julius agrees that this is an important area for development.
“All our sales are 100% contracted so we are looking to deliver as promised; therefore we are interested in technology that can help forecasting at all levels in the supply chain. Shared knowledge helps us to do everything better from the field through storage out to the end user.
“It is a demand led industry and we have seen a decline in fresh sales but an increase in frozen potatoes, particularly in the form of wedges and chips.”
David comments that new varieties need to address these trends:
“Although traditional varieties remain important for fresh market sales, some new varieties are beginning to take a significant market share. There are increasing numbers of newly introduced varieties, which collectively are important.
“New varieties often have improved traits attractive to consumers, including good appearance and low susceptibility to blemishing diseases and physiological disorders.
“Some also have improved agronomic characteristics and real advantages accrue when these are combined with important consumer traits.
“Effective introduction of new varieties often requires investment in trialing candidate varieties and developing variety specific agronomy and storage.
“For fresh market varieties, promotion is also invaluable to encourage consumer adoption but this is generally less important for processed potatoes.”
David says that current research to improve agronomy is as valid for the older varieties as those that have been recently introduced.
“A range of very effective agrochemicals for potato late blight has been developed by agrochemical companies over recent years and when applied well these generally protect crops from significant loss due to late blight.”
Despite recent advances, David doesn’t think that GM is set to be adopted just yet.
“Although strong resistance to blight through GM has been demonstrated it seems unlikely this will be available to UK farmers in the foreseeable future.
“Advances in knowledge of genetics have the potential to markedly improve the efficiency of breeding and selection. However, it is increasingly apparent that the advances in genetics are not being matched by the ability to characterise plants by their phenotypes (visual characteristics), so improvements in this area will be required in order for us to take advantage of the knowledge of genetics.
“This does create opportunities for advanced phenotyping through use of remote sensing and automation. Developments in this area are of considerable interest.”