TALES FROM THE FIELDS: Need for potato growers in NI to embrace change

A spell of fine weather at the end of February 1968 allowed the first of the season's early potatoes to be lifted on the farm of Mr John Herron, Ballyhenry, Comber.
A spell of fine weather at the end of February 1968 allowed the first of the season's early potatoes to be lifted on the farm of Mr John Herron, Ballyhenry, Comber.

If Northern Ireland was to maintain a vigorous and possibly expanding seed potato trade growers had to come together to provide seed on a group basis using up-to-date methods of handling, dressing and storage, and even group methods, believed Mr C H Bullock, the general manager of the Northern Ireland Seed Potato Marketing Board.

Addressing an Ulster Farmers’ Union group meeting in Strabane in February 1968 he told producers that there had been little basic change in the industry until “comparatively recently”.

Mr Bullock said: “The changes that have come and are coming arise out of the greater specialisation by ware growers in Great Britain and elsewhere.

“To meet these changes we must treat seed growing as a specialised operation designed to produce at economic rates what our customers require.

“Costs are rising, not only for us, but for our customers who use the seed to grow ware or seed for local sale. Our customers are becoming specialised in their operations, and consequently, demanding a higher specification for seed which they use.”

Mr Bullock continued: “I am not thinking here narrowly in terms of inspection standards; I am thinking more broadly in that if they buy a tonnage of seed, say in November, they expect - and I think they are right to expect - that, providing they look after it properly when they have received it, they will be able to plant practically every tuber and obtain as nearly as possible a 100 per cent stand in the field.

“This means that we have got to pay more attention to tuber diseases, particularly latent diseases such as gangrene and skin spot.

“Our size grading has got to be closer than it is at present; we must think in terms of split grading and possibly guaranteed tuber counts per cwt. In other words, production and handling have got to be geared to market requirements – and this includes delivery when the customer wants the seed.”

Mr Bullock said that customers were willing to pay “an economic price” but the customer had to be given “what they want”.

“My own view is that we can only achieve this by a greater degree of specialisation than we have at the moment and I think that this can be achieved by larger units of production.

“You may say that, under local conditions, this is not possible and, if one thinks in terms of larger units of production as one man growing 50 to 100 acres, then this is true, but I don’t think of larger units of production only in those sort of terms.

“Larger units will certainly include producers growing larger acreages and this is already evident in some degree, but it will also and indeed mainly consist of groups of producers who will get together to provide seed on a group basis and combine to provide up-to-date methods of handling, dressing and storage and, possibly even go back a stage further to group methods of mechanical harvesting.

“This is a big and somewhat complex subject and, at this stage, I put the idea to you rather than a lot of details of what might be done. I am convinced, however, that this is the way for the future and, if we want to maintain a vigorous and possibly expanding seed trade, I believe that this is how it will have to be done.

“Legislation was passed last year which has resulted in the setting up of the Central Council for Agricultural and Horticultural Co-operation whereby substantial grants are available for the sort of enterprise I have outlined.”

Focusing on the current season’s potato crop Mr Bullock remarked: “The acreage of seed in Northern Ireland increased from 16,500 acres to 20,300 acres, an increase of 3,800, which was good because we were getting too low to remain a vigorous industry.”

Mr Bullock noted that the political crisis in the Middle East had thrown the question of seed potato exports to the region into doubt but that the situation had improved.

He noted: “Last September when we were assessing possible markets for Arran Banner it looked as though between Northern Ireland and Eire there would be a surplus of something over 7,000 tons which was a very bleak prospect. In the event, none of our fears were justified and the difficulty with Banner has been to try and complete shipments, not to look for more sales outlets.”