Potatoes ballot: Town Hall FAQs

Read the questions asked by the levy payers and growers who attended the Potatoes Town Hall open meetings in February 2021, on this frequently asked questions (FAQ) page. 

Ballot

This is a ballot in order to inform Ministers how the industry feels on the value of a statutory potato levy, to assist them to subsequently make a decision on the future of the statutory levy. So, which ever way the vote goes, the decision on the levy rests with Farming Ministers in England, Wales and Scotland.

If Ministers endorsed a ‘no’ vote then all work done by AHDB on potatoes will cease – R&D, all the work on SPot Farms, Marketing and Market Information.

A ‘yes’ vote is a vote for change and, if Ministers endorse this, we are committed to reform, including a ballot every five years. Across AHDB, we have already started looking at additional changes including reducing support costs, enhancing levy payer engagement and a new governance structure. Our work on governance is very much about co-designing this with industry.  Over the next six months, we will consult with levy payers and levy payer groups to determine an approach that reflects what levy payers want and need. In the ballot, we are keen that all eligible levy payers vote and that they do so from an informed position. To help, we have produced a brochure that outlines what you get for your levy.

UK Engage, the independent company that was appointed to run the ballot to ensure due diligence, is running the ballot and it is one levy payer, one vote. 

AHDB will not know who has voted in the Ballot. 

No individual identifiable information will be communicated to AHDB by UK Engage. As professional election scrutineers, UK Engage are not permitted to release any data that identifies individual voters. 

However, as part of the voting process, UK Engage will provide a breakdown of the data – e.g. the percentage of YES and NO votes by levy paid - so that ministers are able to make an informed decision on the future of AHDB Potatoes.

The parameters for the vote are set in the statute that was created when AHDB was formed. The Statetory Inunstrument states that if the threshold of levy payers requeesting a vote is reached, then it is a vote on the continuation of the levy. It also sets who is eligible to vote, that the outturn of the ballot must go to Ministers, and that Ministers are not bound by the result of the ballot.

AHDB has decided to ask an independent company to run the ballot as we believe this the the most fair an impartial way.

Communications and engagement

Levy payer engagement is our priority but we recognise there may be gaps where we don’t have SPot Farms or regular events. If you don’t live near a SPot Farm or feel there’s an engagement gap contact your nearest KE Manager; we’re always keen to listen to and help levy payers.  This includes exploring if additional visits or meetings would benefit them, please contact your local KE Manager if you would like to arrange a meeting. In a normal year, we hold face-to-face regional meetings but in the current climate we have had fantastic uptake for our digital events so check these regularly for those most relevant to your specific topic or area of interest.  Information on our SPot Farms can also be accessed online here

We have a few rules to follow around sample size (e.g. when a low number of trades might expose somebody’s business) but we’re always keen to capture more pricing from industry.

Useful Information: The Grower Better Levy Group has been established by like-minded growers and business representatives who believe statutory levy should remain but be reformed. They have already met with senior AHDB representatives and established the need for AHDB to adapt, evolve and be more levy payer-focused going forward. To join the group, contact Sophie Bambridge

We’ve constructed each of those with a steering group of local growers, agronomists and buyers that helps decide what it is levy payers see to make sure we’ve got the end market and the locality represented. We’ve got our own people in there making sure they understand the pipeline of the research that’s coming through which was consulted on with growers. Through that combination it is highly likely that you have got routes into the right piece of work at the right time. If somebody is feeling their nearest site is not relevant, what we’ve done this year with digital and being able to move information around the country gives you access to what’s happening on all the sites.

Scottish farmers should be proud of the work that has been done at the Scottish Spot farms. The project with Bruce Farms really showed the proof of concept. It was all about being led by the farmers to see what they wanted to see in the field. The host farmer, Geoff Bruce, wanted to know how much money would be in his pocket as a result of the work we did. For potato farmers its all about the bottom line and figures.

The current Spot farm project, working with McCain and host farmer Jim Reid, is intended to really serve the seed industry in dealing with the issues. We have recently held online events where all three SPot farm hosts get together to discuss the challenges they all face. Desiccation, cultivation and aphid and virus control are all big issues and we are looking at how we can work collaboratively to address them as a whole industry.

We carry out an independent survey each year, and the feedback form those that engage is overwhelmingly positive - over 90% say they learned something that will help them improve their business.

Crop Protection and Research and Development

Rules of sale are part of a bigger picture that includes seed inspection and classification, best practice on farm, aphid monitoring and tuber testing and we are actively looking at these. We formed the National Virus Forum with the NFU and have tasked issues to specific groups, including public and private research institutes. We are meeting again on 11 February where we will take stock and produce a report to establish where we all stand and how to move forward. As of today, it would be hard to predict whether changes to rules of sale would have a bigger impact than one of the other factors.

We need to look at PCN in the round as the days are gone when there is one quick solution. We submitted an emergency use application for Vydate and are awaiting the outcome. Going forward, more broadly it will be about integrating different solutions, whether it’s rotational issues or varietal issues. When products are revoked, we provide the evidence to support and submit emergency authorisations applications. PCN management has been flagged up in East Anglia and we are looking to test different varieties in trials to unravel tolerance and resistance a little more. The trials are still in design so if you are interested in participating please contact our team.

The short answer is that there is always more to do. 

Having worked on sampling, tolerance and resistance, biocontrol, trap cropping and rotations as examples these need converting into practical tools for levy payers and we continue to look at PCN on SPot Farms. 

We have two separate SPot sites looking at sprout susceptibility, including trap cropping and a varietal screening on resistance and tolerance to PCN. 

It will require an integrated approach moving forward to package information together for growers. If there are others you would like include, let us know.

 Contact your local Knowledge Exchange Manager or team member if you are interested in these trials.

The logic is driven by the process demanded by Chemicals Regulation Division (CRD), which includes knowledge of varieties and absence of alternatives like low temperature storage or Maleic Hydrazide. 

An initial application for an EA to allow use for the whole industry was rejected by the Chemical Regulations Division (CRD) of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). This was on the grounds that we would need to prove why other alternatives, like mint oil and ethylene, could not work in any sector that received approval, and as the product is not yet approved, we had to demonstrate that waste potatoes could be segregated and not fed to livestock. 

We have published a case study that explains the process in more detail.

We are working with industry to establish the right programmes and priorities. 

We have invested in research to identify how best to store potatoes without CIPC, therefore protecting the 2m tonnes of potatoes that go into long term storage each year. Including:

Find the latest results and recordings of online events on our sprout suppression page.

We are unlikely to make an announcement until after the completion of the forthcoming Ballot on the future of the statutory potato levy. This is because commissioning new research projects will not be possible until the result of the Ballot is known. If the result of the Ballot is that the minister decides the statutory potato levy is to end, there would be no levy funded independent potato storage research or centre of excellence. This project and our work would be cancelled. 

With this project, whatever its outcome, we are building a plan for the next ten years of potato storage research to ensure we have the best people and facilities to deliver what levy payers need. The process has included engaging with our Board and storage committee to scope requirements, allowing for dialogue with bidders to ensuring bids are reviewed thoroughly and fairly against the criteria. We have a requirement to be thorough and to get things right.

We must wait until after the current ballot on the potato levy has been decided before we can continue. While we are engaged in a public procurement process, we cannot comment further. All levy and associated assets and liabilities are ring fenced for the benefit of that sector.

We spend £2.3m a year on our technical work on crop protection and agronomy. The outputs from this, such as RB209 and soil management and cultivation, are massively important to all growers. This work is available for levy payers to engage with via our SPot Farms – we’ve added determinacy trial work and nutrition trials relevant to all growers to get the best out of their crop. Size and quality specification is a different challenge for crisping growers. 

With Farmbench, we’ve worked with crisping grower groups to drill down into individual costs and enable the sharing of best practice for those working with varieties like Markies, but looking for the crisping specs rather than the chipping. 

If you are interested in this work or would like more information, please contact our team.

We are researching improvements in efficacy and it is part of our sprout suppressant strategy going forward. There are a lot of aspects to Maleic Hydrazide (MH) use which are being looked at in an ongoing combination trial at the moment. We engaged with a lot of growers over the last year on MH and this year it seems to have gone on really well, with excellent results for many in store. 

It should not be forgotten that the AHDB team was integral in ensuring that growers have full use of MH, as our data was used to ensure concerns raised by the Chemicals Regulation Division (CRD) of the feeding of waste potatoes to livestock were satisfied.

Environment

In our strategy we have not expressed well enough what our environmental position will be. There are many issues and it’s not just going to be about carbon, it will encompass soils and chemicals. One of the problems with carbon footprint is that nobody has a common standard to measure it. We need to work with others on a framework for the measurement of carbon. Once you have that, you can establish how better to deal with it. It’s extremely important for the future – the big issue that’s coming to the table after Covid-19.

There are things we already do such as, our GrowSave knowledge exchange programme to help growers save energy. We have also recently completed an energy modelling project worth £900,000 (government funded). In the future, we will need to consider issues like battery storage, Co2 scrubbing, sensor optimisation and targeted ventilation. We will consider these in the context of our overarching environment programme.

Governance

If the ballot results in a yes vote that is supported by ministers, we will work with levy payers to co-design a new governance structure.  As part of this work, we can explore with levy payers whether a seed committee is the best way forward. 

Currently, we have two growers from the seed sector on the Potato sector board, who ensure issues relating to this sector are debated and raised at the highest level.   Over the last few months, we have put an incredible amount of focus into Brexit-related activity such as the Safe Haven Scheme, APHA Review and a lot of Market Intelligence input through our Horizon work. We are also the KE partners in a BBSRC-funded research programme looking at developing decision support services to help understand the link between PCN and blackleg management. The work is demonstrated on a dedicated seed site within the SPot Farm network. In addition, we have carried out haulage work around crops going overseas in addition to our seed to store activity. We would be keen to listen to levy payers if they feel seed priorities have been missed.

The Government’s Request for Views consultation on AHDB called for our governance to modernise to improve transparency, efficiency and accountability to industry. Using feedback from levy payers, we are undertaking a review of our governance. This work is ongoing and we want a new structure that is co-designed with levy payers. Some of change resulting from this consultation process will require statutory change and some won’t and will be quicker to implement, but we are open to change.

 

AHDB is not permitted to lobby under a long-standing principle that public bodies must be politically impartial. AHDB's strength, and one of our unique roles, is to provide independent evidence and data – with the credibility of our evidence further supported by us not lobbying. 

We provide independent expert evidence, data and analysis of scenarios directly to policy makers and Ministers in Government to assist with their understanding, planning and decision-making.  We also provide independent evidence, information and analysis to the trade organisations and farming unions to assist them in their activities, including lobbying.

While we don’t lobby, our role is not passive and we are actively communicating and engaging with Ministers, key decision makers, industry and other stakeholders on critical issues affecting the industry.  This work is often not visible to many levy payers and recent examples include the emergency approval for DMN and the Brexit seed issue.

The short answer is there are too many tiers of management and too much bureaucracy – although as a public body we will always have to have more process and administration than a commercial organisation. Like any business, we are facing the reality of challenges that lie ahead and cost control is central to that. It should be recognised that the vast majority of staff are delivering direct services to levy papers and the rest are supporting them to do so. 

Ensuring the way we operate differently for the future is imperative, working with levy payers to co-design our areas of focus, so we deliver maximum value.

We have already commenced plans to reduce cost and bureaucracy. 

The Defra Request for Views really provided a catalyst for change. Alison Levett has commenced in post as AHDB Board Member and Chair of the Potato Board and is committed to addressing key concerns raised by growers. 

Equally, Nicholas Saphir, AHDB Chair, was appointed in early 2020 with a remit to reform AHDB. Since his appointment, AHDB has published its Five Commitments to levy payers including greater levy payer say on how their levy is invested, a new ballot on the levy and reviews of AHDB’s governance and levy systems. In December, AHDB published its Change Programme and Strategy 2021 - 2026

It is a common criticism of AHDB that it has become bureaucratic and top heavy. As a public body, we have to answer to the Statutory Instrument. There are things we would like to change now, but we can’t as we have to change the Statutory Instrument to do so. However, we are proactively working with the Government now to address this. 

We want a new structure that is co-designed with levy payers to ensure that all sectors will be able to access funds and turn around projects as needed. Different levy payers value different products and services, so it will be a flexible approach and run at sector level. It will be much more about sectors making the decisions about where they want to spend the levy. 

In Potatoes, engagement with levy payers to achieve this is absolutely vital. We couldn’t do what we do without levy payer involvement. We need to get the right balance between face to face engagement and the ability to have quick online round table discussions with growers at all levels, in a way that suits them and their business.

Levy collection

As part of the strategy review, we’ve have been collecting views on levy collection methods. We are still open to collecting views but the Potato sector board conclusion is that area planted is the most practical method. 

Recognising issues like flooding and crop loss, we plan to introduce a series of levy corrections that growers can benefit from. 

Our review continues and if any levy payers are interested in participating in the review, please e-mail: rob.clayton@ahdb.org.uk

Lobbying

The key relationship was between Dormfresh and the CRD, which was a slow process with the goalposts moving several times application for full label. We’ve published a detailed case study on how industry worked together to achieve an emergency use application. You can find it here

Recognising that we had to act quickly when DormFresh let us know they would not get full approval, we had a matter of months to work on an emergency approval (EA). An initial application for an EA to allow use for the whole industry was rejected on the grounds that we would need to prove why other alternatives, like mint oil and ethylene, could not work in any sector that received approval, and as the product is not yet approved, we had to demonstrate that waste potatoes could be segregated and not fed to livestock. 

We have recognised that CRD are feeling under pressure to deliver due to the increase in the number of applications. From our discussions with them they realise that a more proactive relationship with us would benefit both sides. 

What is the point of the AHDB unless they can lobby Government? I look at DMN and Brexit. And, what did the AHDB do to prevent reglone, CIPC and vydate being banned and what would be done in future to prevent further essential chemicals being banned? 

AHDB’s role is not to lobby. We don’t lobby as a statutory body. We don’t do the work of the NFU and trade associations, but we have evidence-based conversations such as, producing all the evidence relating to the emergency use application for DMN. 

These have included: 

  • speaking to minsters to pursue the emergency application for DMN
  • working with DIT and the government’s Brexit team and ministers around Brexit and Phytosanitary issues

Marketing and export

It is a mature market in volume but not in value and prior to lockdown we continued to see consumers switch towards higher value processed product. Within fresh too, there is still potential to improve the consumer experience and we’ve recently participated in research to see if there is potential to store potatoes in the fridge at home. This alone would grow the number of times potatoes are seen within the home. There is a lot more to exploit nationally.  In addition, whenever we attend the big events there are international agents interested in British crops and our export work is focused on maximising market opportunities for seed.

 

We’ve not actually stopped promoting earlies but have changed some of the terminology used to target consumers, focussing in on specific consumer groups and the meals they are interested in and engaging with. The Love Potatoes website has a series of relevant recipes and this work has been amplified cost effectively via social media support. In the future, we anticipate that our levy payers will help drive the marketing agenda through greater levy engagement in AHDB.

The vehicle was not cost effective or delivering value for money and was sold. We are able to access powerful market data, looking at consumers by meal occasion and demographic. As such we have developed marketing campaigns that are relatively low cost but have big impact via social media, such as recipes promotion at the start of the first lockdown and a campaign launched on jacket potatoes with people working at home looking for a hot lunch idea. Our Grow Your Own Potatoes campaign has also been incredibly popular with teachers and schoolchildren alike – a tactical activity which has helped over 5 million children learn where their food comes from since 2005.

 

Sadly, potato consumption has been in long-term decline since the second world war as people's lifestyles and eating trends have changed. In more recent times (since the 80s) potatoes have been hit by the rise in popularity of rice and pasta, although still remain the carbohydrate of choice. 

In 2015, we launched a big three-year marketing campaign 'more than a bit on the side' which had matched funding from the EU. Previous to that, potato volumes were declining by -3% but during the campaign years, sales grew. 

We are aware that there is split opinion amongst potato growers whether it is right or not to invest in marketing. There is a very strong argument that we should be protecting our industry, both in terms of reputation and consumption. Potatoes need modernising in terms of their versatility, ease, nutritional benefits through recipe-led work. 

The campaign we have just launched features jacket potatoes under the tag line 'the new packed lunch'. It's running on a very modest budget - just £150,000 - but through clever targeting, using market research data and social media, we can line up different recipe styles with relevant audiences. We are anticipating a very big bang for our buck. 

However, looking ahead it will be for levy payers to decide how much they want to invest in marketing.

We have an investment test and evaluation strategy to assess the value of work. 

However, it will be the decision of the industry collectively what we spend on in the future and is for us to work with you, the levy payers, as to where the money should go.

Strategy

We all understand the potatoes and one or two other crops are having a really tough time and it is a worrying time anyway. It’s not just about potato growing, the uncertainty around the future of farm payments, the problem with not just seed potatoes and Brexit. We’ve just lived through the problems of equivalence and alignments. Also, there’s the risk of declining consumption of potatoes. All of those things are real. The role of AHDB is to help the industry – potatoes, horticulture and all of agriculture – where there is a market failure. Where there is a commercial solution to the issues, then AHDB does not really have a role. Where collectively growers and growers are coming together and can invest in activities that can improve the industry, then AHDB has a role.

We’ve had seed potato saying you are not lobbying enough to get seed potatoes onto the continent. It is for us to produce the evidence for Government to make sure that we are pushing that message but that is as far as we can go. We talk to Ministers and had a conversation with both Scottish and English Ministers over the last 10 days about the issue of seed potato exports but it’s for the unions and association to lobby. We must be the independent voice providing information. Where we can, our key role is to produce the evidence that allows people to make decisions.

We are also there to provide help and support in terms of research and development where that is not available commercially and would not be available commercially because it is not in the interests of commercial companies necessarily to deal with problems that are coming at us in terms of sustainability and environment. A classic example of that is the reduction in chemistry – if we don’t help growers coordinate research to protect their crop when there is not a commercially viable chemical solution, then who will?

Another area is where there is research and development that is not going to be done by anybody else, such as storage, Even McCain said much of the research we’ve done for temperature controls on black heart have allowed them to change their whole storage mechanisms. There are therefore areas that where the commercial world does not and will not provide the answers – that is also our role.

The Potato sector plan in the new Strategy focuses on three priority areas: crop protection, storage and promotion to ensure a sustainable market. 

With a focus on crop protection, we have recently appointed experienced potato specialist Don Pendergast as Head of IPM at AHDB. We will continue pest and disease tracking and monitoring programmes such as Fight Against Blight and Aphid Alerts, to help growers prepare for and manage potential losses in crop protection. We will help growers to find practical and cost-effective alternatives to disappearing chemistry – a great example of this was our recent Agronomy Week, where the potato sessions were attended by over 500 agronomists, and we covered subjects such as varietal resistance to late blight. Looking ahead this work will include practical field trials at SPot Farms, similar to the ones we have run on desiccation, providing guidance on haulm destruction without diquat. We also have an ambitious programme lined up for the development of seed to storage.

Further details on our strategy can be found here.  As part of our new strategic approach, we are moving to a zero based budgeting approach.  This is to ensure we are further focused on delivering what levy payers want us to and we will be looking to engage with levy payers to identify priority areas for investment.   

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