With many growers considering their options for the future, a strategy to revive the ailing Northern Ireland potato industry has been released that if implemented would see a smaller but more professional sector.
It comes at a time when problems in the industry have been worsened by oversupply across Europe that has forced prices down.
Players in the potato sector believe the only way to survive in the highly competitive market place is to capitalize and maximize the benefits offered by Ulster's climate, soils and high health status.
Ironically, Northern Ireland tops the potato consumption table in Europe.
A feasibility study, examining the potential for successful potato growing in the province, said a clear market focus and integrated supply chain would be essential ingredients of success for the future.
The study was carried out by Ian Duff of Ultimo Consulting after he was commissioned by a stakeholder group made up of representatives from the commercial and seed sectors.
The stakeholder group reviewed the state of the industry, the market for potatoes and worldwide consumer trends before deciding there was a viable future for a small, specialized, professional potato industry in Northern Ireland.
But it said the industry would have to work within integrated supply chains and make use of the natural climatic advantages to produce high quality potatoes in line with market requirements.
Duff's report said ware potato growers would be small in number with purchasers wanting to draw from a few dedicated suppliers. They would have to be professional in their approach, know their costs and have sufficient scale to keep these to the minimum.
They would use high quality support from expert agronomists to achieve the yield and quality required and would only use quality seed grown on free draining high grade soils. They would also need to work closely and openly with merchants and processors to meet market requirements.
Growers would also have to be able to adapt quickly to meet changing market needs and adopt new practices. Growth in the processing and food service markets would be dependent on continuing innovation and new product development.
The report said a number of smaller growers would be able to generate income by servicing specific local markets for direct farmer to retail sales.
It said that in the seed sector, there was nothing that could be done or recommended to guarantee that the speculative growing and marketing of free varieties would be profitable. This would remain a high-risk business and will be particularly vulnerable in years of oversupply.
It said successful seed growers would grow an increasing proportion of protected varieties, both for local agents and transnational organizations.
They would work in integrated grower-merchant arrangements with high quality agronomy support throughout the year.
They would know their costs and keep these to the minimum while producing high quality seed to meet specific market needs and they would need to increase the proportion of ware crop grown on the island of Ireland using their seed.
The report said the stakeholder group should remain in existence in the short term to prioritize work and drive forward an agreed action plan.
Other recommended actions in the report included developing and implementing a code of good phyto-security practices to help protect from ring rot and brown rot disease at the local level.
It suggested asking the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to sustain plant-breeding partnerships that would benefit Northern Ireland.
Improved access was needed for funds to invest in improved potato stores through existing grants. The industry needs to ensure potato storage was eligible under new aid arrangements for quality marketing improvement.
Growers should also have immediate access to technical and business audit support to help them with decisions on the future of potato production at the individual farm level.
Improved access to new seed markets can be sought by encouraging the formation of strategic alliance with transnational organizations.
Improved information channels are needed both within the industry and with its customers at home and abroad, including through an annual Potato Outlook conference each fall.
A program to implement these and other recommendations has been developed by the stakeholder group under five priority themes.
These are disease control and quality assurance; breeding and multiplication; economics of production and agronomy; storage and conditioning; and market information and promotion.
Ulster Farmers' Union chairman Campbell Tweed said the report was unique in that it was initiated and conducted by the industry.
"While much work still needs to be done, a clear program of action had been agreed," he said.
Duff said in releasing his report that there has been a stark decline in production areas and the number of growers in the last 20 years.
Since 1984, he said, the area of seed grown had fallen from 6,030 hectares to just 875 hectares and the ware area from 13,695 hectares to 4,546 hectares.
"This means that the total area of potatoes grown is little more than a quarter of that grown 20 years ago," he said.
The total number of potato growers numbers less than 1,000, with 84 specialist seed growers, 87 growing both commercial and seed and 782 growing commercial alone.
Duff said the changes in the market has seen washed supermarket prepacks become the most common way of selling potatoes with an estimated 60 percent to 70 percent of total sales. Supermarkets set the standards and even the varieties required.
But while there remains a strong farm sales and greengrocer trade, Duff said all these markets were under constant threat from imports. In the past Northern Ireland was a significant net exporter.
There are still seed potatoes exported from Northern Ireland, mainly to Morocco, Portugal, the Canary Islands and Algeria but the seed trade to the British mainland had a11 but disappeared.
Duff's report says there was an over dependence on "free" varieties and the limited number of market outlets was hurting export opportunities.
But Duff also states the land is still the same quality as it was in the heyday of the industry and Northern Ireland still has a low disease burden.
He said the industry's strengths include high local consumption of potatoes, investment by packers in recent years and the wealth of knowledge of experienced growers.
The stakeholders group includes the Ulster Farmers' Union, growers representatives, merchants and breeders, packers and processors, the Northern Ireland Potato Marketing Association, Fane Valley Co-op Society, Glens of Antrim Ltd., Tayto Ltd., Ballymoney Foods and Wilson Country Foods.