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Saving our humble spud

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The plight of British potatoes has been well documented in recent years, with UK growers facing challenging times. Pacepacker Services, along with the Potato Council and other industry bodies, have been working with farmers to help them secure a viable and sustainable future and reinvigorate the sector as a whole. 

REELING from a fall in consumer demand, changing tastes and two years of plentiful stocks, prices per potato tonnage continues to fall. In the last three years alone, British potato production has fallen to its lowest level in 25 years. Adding to the pressure, producers are also giving away thousands of pounds worth of stock each year due to inefficient weighing equipment. It’s a similar scene across Europe.

CHANGING TASTES

Over the past 20 years there has been a 40% drop in the number of fresh potatoes eaten in British homes, with families filling up on other carbohydrates like rice and pasta. It may seem like a bleak picture, but all is not lost.

Some of the decline in the popularity of the humble potato can be attributed to changing eating habits. Meals that include fresh potatoes – shepherds pie (-19%), roast dinners (-6%) and savoury pies/puddings (-10%), have fallen in popularity according to the April 2015 potato consumer report. However, the baked spud made a comeback as the fastest growing evening meal, up 7% on 2013.  What’s more, the Potato Council recently secured £3.6m to raise consumer awareness of the versatility and nutritional values of fresh potatoes.

In order to be more resilient, UK producers are exploring ways in which they can diversify their potato portfolio, such as moving into premium products or other root vegetables. Looking to 2020, Britain will continue to need to produce crops efficiently and economically,” says Mike Storey, head of R&D at the Potato Council. “But production must be driven by customer needs and innovation.” This includes meeting consumer requirements for affordable and convenient fresh and processed potatoes, and better exploiting export markets.

“Automation will play an increasingly large role in adapting to changing consumer tastes, as well as capturing export opportunities,” said Paul Wilkinson, Business Development Manager at Pacepacker Services, who also notes a definite shift from farming traditional potato varieties to processing potatoes that typically have a higher yield. In the UK, potatoes grown for the processing sector in 2014 made up 28% of the planted area (the second largest) in Britain. The pre-pack sector remains the largest proportional planted area at 36%.

ENDING PRODUCT GIVEAWAY

With this focus on slimming down production costs, and with farmers being squeezed on profit margins, the big question remains. How can investing in state of the art equipment help in the long run? “If this trend is here to stay then payback might take longer. However, looking at the long-term it is important to maximise profit and stop giving away product unnecessarily.  New equipment can help you take the time to diversify your product offering,” added Paul Wilkinson.

Caythorpe Farmers in Lincolnshire recently took the leap with Pacepacker, investing in an accurate and efficient weighing and bagging system. Teaming up with Dutch company PIM, the Pacepacker multi-head weigher installation replaced the packer’s two original mechanical ‘farm style’ weighers that were giving away between 0.5 to 0.75kg away on some bags. This equated to an average loss of £45,000 annually reports Steve Dowse at Caythorpe.

What makes the PIM multi-head weigher different is its use of self-learning dosing belts to feed the weighing buckets, making it more robust, accurate and particularly well suited to weighing root vegetables. In a split second the weigher calculates 500 possible combinations based on a faculty formula. “Traditional weighers are only as accurate as the last potato that falls into the weighing bucket. Ours can weigh sacks of potatoes within +/- 2g,” says PIM sales and project manager Jouke van der Meer.

Jouke agrees adaptability is paramount for potato growers. “In Europe, the challenges for potato growers are undoubtedly similar. Fresh consumption of potatoes is on the decline. Farmers are increasingly dependent on export markets, and consumers on the continent are turning to convenience products like microwaveable peeled potatoes in a plastic container. The future business viability for potato farmers depends on flexible, efficient and economic automation solutions, as well as knowing where and how to plug the invisible money leaks.”

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