Scottish seed potato exports are booming, with the latest figures indicating that 2014/15 has been a record breaking season.


Scotland only grows 25 per cent of the total GB potato crop, but produces 75 per cent of GB seed and exports a total of 300,000 tonnes annually to more than 25 countries outside of the UK.

In addition to the 78,000t exported to non-EU destinations, Scotland sells between 20 and 30,000t to the EU, while the rest are sold to the UK and home markets. The Scottish seed potato sector is valued at around £80m to £100m and is a real success story. That's due to our cooler climate that inhibits disease-spreading aphids, allowing us to have high health status and a worldwide reputation as a producer of quality seed.

While Scotland's seed producers enjoy another successful year, the same cannot be said for her ware producers who are suffering from a grossly oversupplied market for fresh potatoes and reduced demand from consumers.

Last autumn's EU main-crop potato harvest was a bumper one, with yields up about seven per cent on the year. The oversupply situation was made worse by trade restrictions imposed on the EU by the Russian Federation.

Potatoes had a unique place in the British diet and we still eat around 130kg every year - boiled, baked, roasted, mashed and chipped - but over the past 20 years there has been a 40 per cent drop in the amount of fresh potatoes eaten in British homes.

There are many reasons for the decline in consumption. Carbohydrate-rich foods have been vilified unfairly, and potatoes are the latest target, although they still account for 80 per cent of the starch we consume. Observers point out that the consumer no longer wants to be bothered with peeling and cutting, and that convenience is king. That may account for the steady switch to rice and pasta.

Whatever the reasons for the decline in demand, most growers with contracts are selling their ware potatoes at little more than breakeven prices, while those without contracts are losing substantial amounts of money.

It costs about £120 to produce a tonne of ware potatoes at harvest and at least another £30 to store them until now. Typically, in-contract ware potatoes are currently fetching £150-£170/t, while spot prices for out-of-contract ones are between £20 and £50. Poorer quality ware that are blemished are either sold for cattle feed at between £5 and £8, if a buyer can be found, or dumped.

Modern storage methods allow potatoes to be kept in near perfect conditions until well into the summer, thanks to refrigeration - but that doesn't come cheap, as electricity can cost £6/t until the end of April and double that to the end of July.

It's all a far cry from my childhood, when my mother used to buy shrivelled potatoes with sprouts or "chits" at this time of year, that made horrible, brown chips as a result of their higher sugar content.

There are two main types of ware potatoes - those that are destined for fresh consumption and added-value products such as cut chips or ready-meals such as cooked and then chilled mash or cottage pie, and those that are processed into the likes of crisps. It's interesting to note that while Scotland's shoppers spent £74m on frozen potato products, they also bought £101m worth of crisps.

While Scotland's climate is eminently suitable for growing seed and fresh ware, it is far from ideal for growing processing potatoes, and only Mackies Crisps in the North East processes potatoes on any scale.

That means most of Scotland's processing potatoes have to be transported south into the likes of Yorkshire, and as a result are not competitive. Despite that, Scotland managed to export a record 20,000t of ware this year to the United Arab Emirates, Falkland Islands, St Helena and the Canary Islands.

To try to counter the decline in consumption, the Potato Council has embarked on a promotion to convince consumers that potatoes are a great, nutritional option for low-income households and families facing tightened budgets. It is pointing out that a pack of potatoes cost less than 80p per kg, or 15p for a baked potato which can be made into a nourishing meal with the simple addition of some baked beans.

Looking forward, potatoes growers need to know they have a market for their crop and are not growing speculatively - which makes them weak sellers.