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The Irish Potato Market – finding market stability in a changing world

Lorcan Bourke Fresh Produce & Potato Manager for Bord Bia, discusses the dynamics of the fresh potato market in Ireland that has shown renewed growth in recent years, peaked in the pandemic market of 2020-21 but now faces readjustments and new challenges.

Introduction

As the potato harvesting season gets under way, many growers are faced with decisions around their new season crops. Growers are being impacted by the knock-on effects of external Global and European factors with the war in Ukraine and climate change among the big issues impacting all farming. Potato farms have experienced significant rises in costs (inputs, storage, labour etc) and challenges around labour availability and seed availability (due to Brexit), all which have impacted their production cost base. Stronger consumer demand and perception of value for money could bring increased demand for potatoes this year in an inflationary environment. Finding market stability in this dynamic cost environment needs to be this season’s ambition for fresh market potato producers and packers. This article will examine some key determinant factors that will influence this year’s market.   

The production base

Table 1: Estimated farm gate production values (DAFM Horticulture estimates)

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Production in the sector is focused around a dozen or so central intake points for large scale grading and packing of potatoes in Ireland, with the majority of these focusing on supplying the major retail supermarkets and foodservice channels. Other intake points support crisp manufacturing and the chipping trade. The early potato market is another distinct market restricted to growers with ‘early land’ and milder climates. Table 1 illustrates that the area of potatoes planted in the past few years has been constant largely finding its own level with steady market demand.

Potato yields

Potato variety is a key determinant of potato yields and growers in Ireland focus on growing mainly relatively high dry matter varieties for the fresh market/Irish consumer.  Growers can best achieve high yields through a combination of good seed and soil selection, together with the best applied science based agronomy.  Weather variability has become a major determinant on crop success in recent years. The summer of 2022 will be remembered as a drought year, a year crops needed irrigation or were ‘held back’ in their yield potential. Early crop predictions by Teagasc suggest yields are back in 2022 compared with 2021. Rooster has become the dominant variety for the production and packing of fresh table ware potatoes representing c.59% of plantings at farm level (Source: 2021 annual IFA survey). The Bord Bia/Teagasc annual potato yield digs will be commencing shortly and will provide an estimate this Autumn of what the production levels are this year. 

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The Consumer Market

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Potatoes are Ireland’s number one main meal carbohydrate. Household spend on fresh potatoes in Ireland is currently valued at €232m annually with 220,000 tonnes being purchased. The market experienced continuous decline from the millennium year to a low point in the 2012-13 season. This was followed by a significant rise in market demand on the back of two industry/EU funded consumer promotion campaigns, while achieving a COVID market peak in the 2020-21 season, when people were restricted to home and foodservice was shut down. Since lockdown was lifted there has been a return to ‘normal’ purchase patterns by consumers. Potato demand since late 2021 has been reduced but remains above 2019 (pre-Covid levels).

Roosters remain the most popular potato variety bought by Irish households representing c.65% of sales in any given year. According to Kantar Worldpanel Rooster sales dropped from 161,214 tonnes in 2021 to an estimated 140,395 tonnes in 2022 a market re-adjustment post Covid (and as part of this re-adjustment in the same period the retail potato market contracted by approx 10%). 

Market growth since the turn of the millennium has been hard fought for by the sector by improving consumer’s perception of potatoes. Bord Bia run EU campaigns have sought to change perceptions around carbohydrates, the versatility / benefits of potatoes and their extended usage, making them a ‘must buy’ item to keep in stock in modern Irish kitchens, as a basis for any meal occasion. Many recipes promoted in these campaigns are created to tie in with more modern and less traditional cooking tastes and convenient dishes e.g. curries, stir-fries etc. 

National Potato Day 2022

October 7th is National Potato Day which is a consumer focused annual celebration of the potato  organised by Bord Bia in conjunction with the industry. In 2022 the theme for National Potato Day will be around the versatility and value for money that potatoes are.