With the new season’s potatoes now bedded in, we look at the months ahead to see what friers can expect in terms of quality, availability and pricing
Whilst friers have seen dramatic price rises in the past 12 months – fish up 60%, oil up 70% and packaging up 40%, potatoes have been one of the commodities that have remained pretty consistent, hovering around the £7 a bag mark at the cheaper end of the market and reaching £9 for grade A stock.
One factor currently keeping potatoes stable is unfortunately a drop in demand due to a reduction in footfall to shops as rising prices start hitting customers’ wallets. Mitchells Potatoes, which has supplied fish and chip shops since 1883 from its base in Rugby, Warwickshire, has seen deliveries to its customers down significantly, with director Stuart Mitchell estimating shops would be paying upwards of £10 a bag if trade was at a ‘normal’ level for this time of year.
Quality and yield
With the continued spell of dry, hot weather, the chances are that it won’t be long before prices start breaking through the £10 a bag mark as quality and yields look to be impacted – not only does a lack of rain take its toll on crops but when temperatures hit 25°C, potatoes simply stop growing.
Harvey Jones of Peter Gwyn & Sons Quality Potatoes, a potato merchant based in North Wales, says crops are already being badly affected by the drought with yields of the main crop being down well over 30% in some areas.
“The prices are already beginning to rise as we are seeing quality problems occur.,” he says. “A lot of potatoes that were destined for chip shops are having to be sold to other sectors as the quality just isn’t good enough for frying.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Stuart Mitchell, who says it’s imperative over the next few weeks for fields to get at least 40mm of rain. “And that’s not in half an hour, that’s a steady day of rain, otherwise I would expect potatoes to be under a fair bit of pressure.
“What I can see happening, and this is whether we get the rain or not, is that farmers will start harvesting their potatoes in October, the likelihood is that crops won’t be that good, they won’t be in a rush to supply the market so then the buyers will offer more money to the farmer and that will force the prices up. We expect potatoes to be in the range of £9.50 up to £10 a bag as of October.”
From March 2023, Stuart anticipates potatoes could go even higher and reach £12-14 a bag. “I could be wrong, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we get to £15 a bag between March and June next year,” Stuart adds. “One thing that we can be sure of is that potatoes won’t be cheap next year.”
It’s not just a drought putting pressure on prices; farmers’ costs have increased 30-35% on last year. Fertiliser alone has tripled in price, fuel for machinery has doubled, even paper sacks are up 25% and, of course, electricity for running long-term stores is also another big cost.
On top of this, the hike in fuel costs has seen the cost of deliveries increase. Stuart Mitchell estimates it now costs his business 75p more to transport a bag of potatoes now than it did in April 2021.
But there’s another fear too that if tonnage on the main crop is down, a bidding war will ensue with those operators willing to pay the most winning. William Masters, director and logistics manager at London and South East-based potato merchant Masters & Co, says: “I’ve heard some of the big food manufacturers are already offering big money for contracts without the potatoes going into bags. When that happens, you’ve got a supplier offering good money to farmers and they haven’t even got to invest in extra labour bagging them up, putting them on our lorries and sending them to shops. They will be straight on the back of a lorry and off to the manufacturers.”
While European crops would help make up a shortfall, extreme weather conditions on the continent mirror the situation in the UK. “Shops had it reasonable last year but it’s going to be an expensive year coming up,” adds William.
Friers need to prepare for higher prices, look after the potatoes they do have coming in and if they can, consider agreeing to a contract, even if it’s for six months from January to June. “When the new season potatoes come out in July, at least the more expensive part of the season you’ve covered at a set price,” says William.
Masters & Co 0207 987 7890 www.masterscompanyltd.com
Mitchells Potatoes 01926 633 323 www.mitchells-potatoes.co.uk
Peter Gwyn & Sons Quality Potatoes 07831 828956 www.petergwynpotatoes.co.uk
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