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The 2023-24 potato season has been fraught with unprecedented challenges, resulting in significant supply issues and soaring prices. From severe flooding and low light levels during the growing season to delays in harvesting, the UK and the wider Northwest Europe have faced a perfect storm of adverse conditions. This article delves into the factors that have led to the current crisis, the impact on prices, and the outlook for the future, providing a comprehensive understanding for purchasers, buyers, and chefs who are navigating this tumultuous period.

Planting and Harvesting Cycle
In the UK, potatoes are typically planted between March and May and harvested between July and October, depending on the variety. The issues we are experiencing in 2024 are rooted in the 2023 growing season.

Impact of Floods and Adverse Weather
The potato crop planted between March and May 2023 faced unprecedented challenges. Major floods caused by Storms Agnes, Babet, and Ciaran hit the UK during critical periods:

  • Storm Agnes: Late September 2023
  • Storm Babet: October 2023
  • Storm Ciaran: Early November 2023.
These floods, combined with lower light levels during the growing season, significantly impacted potato development. The tubers did not grow as large or as numerous as usual, and delayed harvesting further compromised their quality and storability.

Reduced Harvest and Quality Issues
The 2023 harvest yielded only 4.14 million tonnes, a stark contrast to the 6.2 million tonnes harvested in 2017. The delay in harvesting led to many potatoes rotting in the fields or being stored in suboptimal conditions, reducing their quality and shelf life.

Northwest Europe Impact
This problem is not isolated to the UK. The entire Northwest of Europe, including major potato producers like the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium, faced similar issues due to adverse weather. Normally, the UK could turn to these countries for imports, but they are also experiencing shortages and high demand. In fact, some European buyers are now trying to purchase UK potatoes, exacerbating the supply issues.

Rising Prices and Market Impact
The reduced yield and poor storability have led to consistently high potato prices throughout the season. Prices have risen each month and are expected to continue increasing until the new crop is harvested. Early varieties like new potatoes and salad potatoes might bring some price relief in July and August, but main crop varieties, including larger potatoes like baking potatoes, won't see price stabilisation until at least August or September.

Importing from Unconventional Sources
The severity of the shortage is highlighted by the fact that some UK suppliers have started importing baking potatoes from Egypt. Traditionally, the UK has relied on its own crop, particularly for staples like baking potatoes. This shift underscores the extent of the crisis and suggests that the supply issues will persist into the summer.

Future Outlook and Farmer Concerns
The 2023-24 season also saw a reduced production of seed potatoes, which will affect the crop planted in 2024. This uncertainty, combined with the risks highlighted by last year's weather, has made farmers wary of planting potatoes. Traditionally, high prices would encourage more planting, but the current risk factors may lead to reduced or stable planting areas.

Policy and Economic Factors
The shift from the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) to the Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) further complicates the outlook. ELMS rewards sustainable and diversified farming practices, which are less compatible with intensive potato cultivation. Additionally, increased costs across the board—from machinery and fuel to storage and distribution—mean that even if the 2024 crop is abundant, potatoes are unlikely to return to being a cheap commodity.

The combination of last year's floods, lower light levels, and delayed harvesting has severely impacted the 2023-24 potato crop. With reduced yields, high prices, and significant future uncertainties, the potato market faces ongoing challenges. Understanding these factors helps explain the current high prices and anticipates continued volatility in the market.

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