COMMENT: Our potato growers are in need of Covid support

The Stormont Executive must recognise the plight of those potato producers who supply the catering and service industries only.

It turns out that they may be the farming sector to have been most badly hit by the Covid pandemic.

In the first instance they grow crops that are bespoke for the catering market: they do not have a retail option. And as we all know, the catering sector has, to all intents and purposes, been totally closed up for months.

As I understand it, many of the potato growers impacted by the shut-down of the catering industry now have no option but to sell their produce for stock feed. This means they will be getting around £20/t for their potatoes. In normal times, this figure would be well above £100.

Stormont must also recognise that it was decisions taken by our politicians that led to the almost complete shutdown of the service sectors. When potato growers were planting their crops last spring, they were not to know of the steps that would be taken to deal with the Covid pandemic a few months later.

Potato growers who normally supply the service now find themselves facing up to large losses. Many do not have cold store facilities on farm, which means that the quality of the crops they grew last year is fast deteriorating. I strongly believe that the Stormont Executive must act now to support these growers now. Potatoes are very expensive crops to grow. Moreover, it’s not as if the growers caught now with unsold crops are speculators: they grow a specific type of crop, year-in, year-out, for which there is, normally, a high demand. It is interesting to note that farm minister Edwin Poots has acted this week to support the cause of those intensive livestock producers, who were impacted by last year’s Covid downturn And rightly so! These farmers deserve to be supported in the wake of a problem that was not of their making. But the same principle should also hold in the case of those potato growers who supply the catering and service sectors. Edwin Poots made it very clear some months ago that he would keep a proportion of the Covid support fund back in reserve to cover all eventualities regarding the impact of the pandemic across every facet of farming in Northern Ireland.

Potato growers working with the catering industry are now saying that they are caught between a rock and a hard place, where their businesses are concerned. It behoves Edwin Poots to, at least, hear their case.