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The number of growers in Ireland has fallen significantly in a decade. Alamy Stock Photo
empty shelves

Potato shortage looms as growers rush to late planting following bad weather

This year’s late planting comes after a poor season last year too.

SHOPPERS COULD BE met with empty shelves this summer when they go looking for potatoes, after extremely wet weather delayed planting to long after it should have started.

Coming on top of a poor harvest last year, the fact that planting only started this week – which will reduce the size of the crop – means Irish supermarkets are likely to need to “ration” Roosters, an expert from the Teagasc food development state agency warned.

“Supplies will be tight in July,” said Shay Phelan, a Teagasc scientist.

He added that consumers may soon begin to notice potatoes being packaged in smaller bags to try and ration supplies, while supermarket shelves might be full in the morning but empty by evening.

Drought last May and June affected yields last year, with an assessment by Bord Bia indicating yields were down 10% year on year, compounded by a wet harvest season.

Unusually heavy rainfall this month and last delayed planting of this season’s maincrop potatoes.

Sean Ryan, a Wexford grower and chair of the Irish Farmers’ Association potato committee, said most in the sector had made a start on planting by the middle of last week – but the forecast is not great from Monday so planting could stop again. 

“Early potatoes should have been sown at the end of February and up to the end of March and nothing was planted – 50 acres [nationwide] out of 21,0000. They’re only going in now, early and maincrop,” Ryan explained earlier this week as he prepared to begin his own planting.

He added that the loss of 750 acres last year to waterlogging and frost, combined with the fact that early potatoes had not been planted on time, meant there was going to be a “big gap in the market”.

“Supply is going to be very tight,” he said. “There will be empty shelves.”

Difficulties in Irish potato sector

Despite potatoes being the crop most associated with Ireland, and a staple for many families, the country has lost most of its growers in the past decade. Ryan said there are just 160 growers today down from 700 ten or 12 years ago.

He said supermarkets need to “step up” and support growers by ending their practice of promoting cut-price Irish produce. He noted that supermarkets often promote ultra cheap deals on potatoes – such as 49c per bag ads in the newspapers.

“They’ve made little of the produce and if you do that it will come back to haunt you,” Ryan said, noting that supermarkets would have to take down the signs advertising Irish produce if the sector collapses.

He said the cost of growing an acre of potatoes has “soared” but the prices growers are getting for their produce has not matched this cost inflation. 

Phelan, of Teagasc, said more and more growers were installing irrigation systems to protect their crops. He said that the labour involved in operating such systems meant growers often could not use them across their entire acreage.

Climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme weather events in Ireland, with an increase in both dry period and heavy rainfall events expected as tempertures increase.

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