Tech, skills and collaboration could boost potato harvests

By Helen Gilbert

- Last updated on GMT

Maddox: 'Improving crop yields without added stress on the environment is what everyone wants'
Maddox: 'Improving crop yields without added stress on the environment is what everyone wants'
Potato crop yields could be maximised through a combination of smart technology, training and greater supply chain collaboration, a new study has found.

The findings – published in the Waste & Resources Action Programme’s (WRAP’s) Improving performance in the fresh potato supply chain​ report – highlight how early intervention could help prevent produce falling outside of specifications. That factor is one of the most significant causes of crop rejection in primary production, it claims. 

The trials were based on a research project involving 14 potato growers from Asda’s Integrated Procurement & Logistics (IPL) fresh produce business. 

Undertaken in East Anglia, the study tracked potatoes from sowing in 2017 through to harvest and storage into 2018. It saw participating farms grow a combination of salad and fresh potato crops using Belana, Nectar and Maris Piper varieties, which were sold in Asda stores.

Monitoring

Growers were able to increase yields because they had access to critical information on crop development earlier thanks to increased monitoring and measurement.

Dedicated training was also provided prior to planting on best practice in crop management techniques, and collaborative support was given throughout the trials.  

However, the Wrap study also found significant inconsistencies in the yields and performances of the participating growers with a particularly noticeable disparity between the highest and the lowest total crop yields.

Belana, the best performing crop, generated nearly £10,000 more revenue per hectare (ha) than the lowest. For nectar, where the differences were less pronounced, variation was still £2,000 per ha more than the worst performing crop, the report stated. This was worth £20,300 based on an average field size of 10 ha.

Wrap identified a need to develop a new standard for measuring crop performance and waste and made a series of recommendations.

Recommendations

• work to provide a common data standard and metrics for measuring performance of commercial potato crops in the field. This would allow industry to identify the causes of crop variation and continuously improve.
• A standard should operate across the entire industry and be used by all supply chains. In the case of potatoes, it should be adopted across different categories (fresh and processed) and could even inform decisions around other fresh produce crops. 
• A standard should include protocols for collecting data during the season (canopy cover and test digs) and at the end of the season.  

Such information was vital to help understand the correct ‘levers’ to pull in order to close the gap in actual marketable yield and biological potential, and to reduce the current wide variation in commercial crop performance, the report cited.

“What our trials identified more than anything is that more standardised measurement can help growers enormously in showing where the potential is to improve yields,”​ Wrap director Peter Maddox told Food Manufacture​. “There are already several initiatives wherein consistency in crop measurement is used to help growers benchmark yields, for example around wheat and oilseeds. Wrap is keen to explore with industry how this kind of consistency can be introduced with potatoes, and possibly other crops too. In the meantime, we recommend farmers and growers visit the foodsurplusnetwork.wrap.org.uk​ to investigate the growing range of alternative markets available for surplus.”

Ian Harrison, IPL technical director at Asda, added: “At IPL, we are really interested to see how yields can be improved and better predicted ahead of pack-out in our facilities. Any tool that can reduce uncertainty in our supply chain gives a huge benefit to our planning and operations, and the work WRAP are undertaking should give a common approach across the industry.”

Related topics: Supply Chain

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