Are potato producers heading towards a crisis?

LAST Friday, Ulster Unionist Party MLA for North Antrim Robin Swann and his party colleague Councillor Sandra Hunter, Vice Chair of Moyle District Council, met with a group of potato farmers from North Antrim in Bushmills community centre.

The main topic of discussion was what is being seen as a developing crisis in the local potato industry. The growers pointed out that local Northern Ireland producers, are effectively being put out of business by cheap imports from Europe.

Indeed some of these imports are not immediately recognisable varieties to the Northern Ireland consumer and the farmers would argue inferior in quality and flavour to traditional local potato varieties, it was claimed.

A statement went on: “Store sheds in North Antrim are still full of unsold potatoes, this is not for the want of trying on the part of producers but a number have not heard anything from their buyers since October. With the “Cyprus” imports expected in March, some are now being forced to sell their ware potatoes for animal feed.

“It costs approximately £60 to £100 to produce a tonne of potatoes the same potatoes are sold in supermarkets for between £600 to £800 per tonne with some speciality varieties in supermarkets costing the consumer up to as much as £1200.”

The North Antrim men pointed out that the potato is an unsupported and unsubsidized crop in fact it never has been. There is a strong feeling that this needs to change as soon as possible. In addition they believe that this further highlights the need for a Supermarket Ombudsman and that the Minister of the Agri Food Task Force needs to include potatoes as a priority issue.

If the present situation is allowed to continue then this crisis will deepen in that the majority of these producers will simply cease to produce potatoes and once this happens, it will be very difficult if not impossible to restart the industry, the group said.

The group also discussed issues in the forthcoming CAP reform proposals from the threat of further greening, permanent pasture, three crop rotation and what is classed as an “active farmer”.