Northern Ireland Crisis

Published online: Apr 13, 2005
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A Northern Ireland farmer says the province's potato industry is facing a financial crisis.
In a letter to the Farm Week newspaper, Ballymena beef and sheep farmer Kevin MacAuley said he had learned that the price of merchant trade potatoes had fallen more than 20 percent in the last 12 months to 65 pounds sterling (US$122) a tonne. He said some varieties were making less than 50 pounds (US$94) a tonne.

"When one considers that it takes between 90 and 100 pounds (US$169 and US188) per tonne to grow the potatoes, it demonstrates the gigantic size of the losses that are being incurred," MacAuley wrote.

He said that over the past 15 years the potato crop has dropped 47 percent from 12,700 hectares (31,380 acres) to 6,700 hectares (16,556 acres).

"The overall drop in potato acreage has masked the catastrophic reduction in the seed potato acreage," he said. "Fifteen years ago there were 4,435 hectares (10,959 acres) of seed potatoes grown. Last year the acreage had plummeted to 1,065 hectares (2,631 acres), a drop of 76 percent."

He said the once thriving seed potato trade had provided many farmers with a reasonable living but now seed potato growers have been almost eliminated.

"Northern Ireland has a tremendous health status for growing seed potatoes," MacAuley wrote. "Yet those that keep bringing imports into the country put the valuable health status at risk.

"Brown rot has gained a foothold on the (British) mainland, being imported there from Holland. Yet many tonnes of potatoes are being brought across here from the mainland. It seems that some are prepared to risk the future of the seed industry for short-term gain."

MacAuley said all farmers are being constantly urged to cut costs. Only recently one of the supermarket gods and a potato-processing tycoon both exhorted farmers to become more efficient.

"What they really meant was that they wanted cheaper produce'' to swell their own immense profits," he wrote. "I do believe that if farmers were giving them their produce as a present they would still not be happy.

"Farmers have achieved great efficiencies over the years in all sections. They can only tighten the belt so far. Farmers cannot keep on producing at below the cost of production. Unfortunately, the supermarkets and processors are driving more and more potato farmers out of business to boost their own colossal profits. Do they care?"