An AHDB Seed Potatoes Event 2016 plenary session report
‘It all starts with us. We are the beginning of a £4.8 billion a year potato industry’. So said Tony Bambridge, B&C Farming and a keynote speaker at the event. Seed, in terms of area (about 17,000ha) and value (£200 million/year) is a relatively small part of the UK potato industry, but its health, well being and resilience is fundamental to the development of the wider industry. If you don’t have solid foundations, the building collapses around your ears.
Short term strengths
And in many ways the seed industry is in good health – strong demand, big opportunities in the export and (especially) home markets, and better placed and better prepared than many for Brexit, according to AHDB’s Head of Exports, Peter Hardwick. This resilience is due to a relatively low reliance on the EU for trade and a business model less dependent on CAP subsidies than, say, livestock production. In the short term, a weak pound has meant lower machinery and fertiliser costs for example (but in the longer run that can’t be a good thing), although the other side of that particular coin is that EU migrants are leaving the UK in search of better exchange rates for the money to send home (employment agencies are already reporting this).
Long term challenges
So, on the whole it seems the industry is in a pretty good place just now. Listening to the speakers and discussions, the challenges are further down the line. Fragility is becoming a matter of increasing concern. I was surprised -and slightly shocked – to learn how small the industry was in terms of the number of producers; just 30 growers of prebasic seed in the UK, many of whom are, shall we say, advanced in years. In the interests of resilience and longevity, this surely must increase. At same time, though, the amount of clean land available for high grade production is limited and coming under increasing pressure. PCN is not considered as too serious an issue at present, but it will become so as the pressure mounts. An opportunity for Wales then? We are, after all, well away from the main growing areas, and we have a significant amount of land – practically all of it – PNC free, that could be suitable. In the short term that will difficult due to a lack of machinery, facilities, infrastructure and expertise. But in the long term? It’s certainly a possibility.
Consolidate and simplify
I also picked up a strong ‘consolidation’ agenda. Tony Bambridge pointed to an explosion of new varieties over the last decade, many of which, he felt did not bring anything new to the table. He called for consolidation and simplification. On one level I can understand this, but if there is going to be a reduction in diversity, it must surely be a strategic one. The reason I started growing for Sarpo was to help secure a supply of varieties that do well in low-input systems, and that contribute to a sustainable agricultural industry – a direction in which all agriculture must move, and quickly. This is no time to be throwing babies out with bathwater.
This feeds into another theme of the conference; that of closer cooperation and call to work together in the long-term interests of the industry. No easy task, in what is often perceived as a highly competitive (I’ve even heard it described as cutthroat) business. So what would that look like? A more equitable and co-operation-based supply chain? A stronger voice for the seed sector in the wider potato industry? Whatever we decide it is, we need to start moving in that direction – fast.
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