Decision time on potato plantings as questions remain over water supplies

WITH soil moisture deficits commonplace and reservoir and ground water levels low, potato growers could be facing some difficult decisions in terms of water restrictions impacting their crops this season.

According to ‘Winter drought risks on UK potato production’, a Potato Council-funded report produced by Cranfield University, 56 per cent of all irrigated potato fields are currently located within areas classified as being ‘high risk’ in terms of current levels of water resource.

“It has been exceptionally dry in East Anglia, Kent and across in Shropshire,” says Nick Tapp, Cambridge-based Bidwells head of agricultural business.

“One month ago I was saying to growers they needed to start planning their management decisions and make a risk assessment according to their localised situation.

“They needed to question if they had the right varieties or whether they had enough water and whether they had the amount of water their tenants would be expecting, if they are landowners.”

Overall

Mr Tapp says some growers are cutting their acreage by as much as one third compared with last year, although he believes it is difficult to tell if the overall potato acreage will be affected this season.

“On the flip-side, Scottish potato growers have more than enough water and those growing crops on good land may up their acreage by 20 per cent.”

Sarah Dawson, chairman of the NFU board for horticulture and potatoes says she is concerned not only for this year’s water supply but next year as well.

“It could be absolutely critical this time next year if we get similar weather patterns and there will be growers already thinking about not growing crops next year and re-evaluating their five to six year cropping programme, budgets and continuity of supply to their customers,” she says.

According to Rob Clayton, director of the Potato Council, if there is one silver lining this spring it is the fact growers will have the opportunity to perform remedial work, particularly where soil compaction has been an issue.

“Potentially it’s looking like a very dry spring so there should be an opportunity to get cultivations and compaction management bang on,” he says.

Reuben Morris, technical support manager for Frontier believes that despite the current concerns in the industry, most of the country’s main potato growers will plant a similar acreage to last year.

“Planning of crops and inputs is definitely further behind than last year and I’ve spoken to fertiliser people within Frontier who say some growers are not moving their purchasing forward as yet because they are unsure of the acreage they’ll grow.”

He also reminds growers of the possibility of trading water this season, saying there are many abstraction licences not being used and the question is who has them and could they be traded?

Drought advice ahead of planting

  • Stay in close contact with the Environment Agency
  • Look for every opportunity to fill winter storage reservoirs
  • Find ways to trade/share water by working collectively with neighbouring growers
  • Ensure irrigation systems work at optimum efficiency
  • Use the dry spring to maximise remedial work during cultivations
  • Avoid growing on the lightest soils
  • Consider growing more drought tolerant varieties, such as Desiree, Harmony, Safari, Saphire
  • For pre-pack markets, more scab tolerant varieties could be considered - Sovereign, Lady Clare, Estima, Melody, Nadine

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