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What does one of the lowest potato production years mean for regions and sectors?

Friday, 31 January 2020

The updated estimate of total potato production in Great Britain for the 2019 crop is 5.10Mt*. This is an increase of 182Kt from last season, but 7% below the five-year average (2014-2018, 5.49Mt). This estimate is based on an unharvested area of 6%, some of which is “abandoned” and some of which may still be lifted.

The 2019 estimated average net yield for GB is 45.6t/ha, up 3.9t/ha from last season and 2% below the five year average (2014-2018, 46.6t/ha). However, what will be key this season will be the useability of the crop in stores. With such poor lifting conditions and with late lifted crop being sold straight off field, the amount of useable crop available remains to be seen. AHDB will release its end-November stocks estimate next week, giving a first look at this.

Production by region

Production by region is a mixed bag this season, when compared to last year. At 205.2Kt, the North East and West has had the biggest drop in production compared to last year, down 36.1kt. The South East, South West and Wales and West Midlands also saw a reduction in production compared to last year. The drop in production for some of these regions is partly due to a reduction in planted area. However, for some, the unharvested area is driving the decrease.

The region with the largest unharvested area is the North (East and West) at 16%, one of the worst hit by the heavy rainfall. The last lifting report (as at 12 November) reported that the North, together with Yorkshire and Humber, had the largest proportion of crop still in the ground. Scotland, the South East, South West and East of England are estimated to have the lowest unharvested area, with Scotland and the South East impacted less by the rainfall.

There are still reports of lifting across the country where conditions allow, so some of the unharvested area may add to the production figure. But the question will be around the quality of the crop and subsequent usability.

Production by sector

The North West, North East and Yorkshire and Humber made up c.30% of the processing area this season. These regions have been the hardest hit, so it is unsurprising that the processing sector is facing significant challenges. Production for processing (including other ware) is estimated 75.0Kt lower than last year, at 1,750.7Kt. But it’s not just a lower processing tonnage that’s causing issues, there are quality concerns with the available supply.

Many crops were under stress prior to lifting and there have been reports of problems with fry colour. This has been particularly difficult for crisping, with reports of rejections despite tight supplies. In contrast, all other sectors recorded volume increases on the previous year. The largest production increase is seen in the pre-pack sector. This is also not unexpected as the planted area for this sector saw the largest rise. Nearly 60% of the area planted for the pre-pack market is in Scotland and the East of England, both of which have minimal unharvested area. Difficult lifting conditions have led to increased machinery damage, which not only inhibits the skin finish but in turn causes problems in store. 

Conclusion

While total GB production is 4% more than last season, it still comes in at the fifth lowest on record. The varying regional impacts of the rain have affected some sectors more than others, with the processing crop the worst affected. However, crucially this season will be how the crop stores, especially that lifted during the worst of the rain. The end-November stocks estimate, due next week, will give a first look at the volume of grower-held crop. However, the actual amount of this that is suitable for use remains to be seen.  

The distinct lack of carry-over stock from harvest 2018, coupled with difficult lifting conditions means we are likely to see a tightening of domestic potatoes for certain market sectors. Particularly for those requiring top quality material or with tight specifications. Suspect stores could also need to be moved early, adding further to an already pressure market.

This could further widen the quality driven gap in prices. Sought after volumes of best quality material could command an increasing premium. While an oversupply of lesser quality could further pressure prices for lower value supplies. *Please note statistical 95% confidence limits for this production estimate are +/-3%, which means that the final figure for 2019 could lie anywhere in the range from 4.96Mt to 5.24Mt.

Alice Bailey

Senior Analyst

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