News Potatoes

Week of truth for remaining planting season

June 10, 2024 - Niels van der Boom

Potato planters in the Netherlands and other European countries are driving back and forth in early June to catch up as much as possible. An exceptional scenario that has never been seen on this scale before. With a new rainy period approaching, the chance to plant is getting smaller.

Potato growers this spring (and now summer) must possess a combination of angelic patience, breed optimism, and enormous perseverance. Understandably, the mood is simply bad for many arable farmers and contractors. During the rare dry moments, everyone is on deck to plant and sow. Potatoes, as well as sugar beets and corn, still need to be sown. In the south of the Netherlands and large parts of Belgium, most of the work still needs to be done. There are also potato fields or parts of them that are being replanted because they are waterlogged or because the seed potatoes have emergence problems.

Fifth still to be planted
According to figures from Aviko Potato, almost 20% of the consumption potatoes in the Netherlands still needed to be planted by their growers at the end of last week. This area is mainly located in Limburg, North Brabant, and Zeeland. In the North and Middle of the Netherlands, there is a smaller area that is not in the ground. There, the biggest challenge is mainly ridging and earthing up. The biggest pain is in Belgium, where at least 40% had to be planted by this weekend. Viaverda (formerly PCA) even mentioned at the beginning of last week that 50% of the potato area was not in the ground. Planting is more advanced in Wallonia than in Flanders, but even there, the large growers are still planting. Belgian potato growers still have at least two weeks of planting work ahead.

Remarkably, in many places in Belgium, less water fell in May than in the Netherlands - although the regional monthly total has also reached 240 millimeters - but progress in the country has been minimal. Repeated rain showers have kept fields impassable. In France, almost all potatoes are already in the ground. In Germany, an estimated small 10% still needed to be planted until last weekend. For the fields in southern Germany, that chance has now passed after the floods.

Rain front
During the first weekend of June, planting was sometimes done day and night to plant as much as possible. Despite this effort, a significant area still needs to be planted towards mid-June in the areas described earlier. The current weather forecast for this week offers little opportunity to resume work in the Netherlands. Large parts of the country, except for the far south, are already experiencing a fair amount of rainfall today.

Further south, it is drier, with just a small rain shower. There, arable farmers have about a week to get as much into the ground as possible. However, it remains relatively cold for this time of year. Nevertheless, the (potato) crops that are already in the ground are currently developing rapidly. This poses challenges as it is quite a task to protect the crops well against diseases like late blight. 

Seed potato quality
The fields that have been recently planted are struggling with poor structure and wet soil. "It wasn't a ten before, but now it's more like a five," says one grower. It is clear that these crops - apart from their late planting date - will not yield top results. Not to mention the upcoming harvest risk. Many reports are also made about poor quality seed potatoes. Both those already in the ground and those still in storage. Much of the seed potatoes were cut weeks ago and have been in the crate or tipper for some time now. Quality problems are commonplace. Insiders report that considerable volumes are no longer usable. Things are not necessarily better in the field. Apart from problems with water damage, there are also hardened tubers and diseases. These can quickly manifest in cut seed potatoes. Locally, parts or whole fields are being replanted.

It is no longer a question of whether all potatoes will be planted but more about how many will not be planted. Simply because of the late date or because fields are impassable. This mainly affects Belgium and the Netherlands. Those who cannot access the fields this week will most likely have to cut their losses, as frustrating as that may be. Switching between crops at such a late stage is often no longer possible. The tail end of the current sales season is naturally strongly influenced by this unique situation. Given the weather forecast for the rest of June, we will likely have a cool and wet weather pattern, with all its consequences.

New harvest
The new season is also starting remarkably. It's actually a copy of last year in terms of pricing. The start of the harvest is likely to be earlier than average, as a small part of the early potatoes was planted on time and has developed quickly. It is mainly the connection with the subsequent fields that creates a gap. Factories seem calm on the surface but are trying behind the scenes to cope with the problems as best as possible. This means being frugal with the old harvest, taking plenty of time for line maintenance and vacations, and buying additional potatoes where possible. The current situation offers opportunities to hedge against relatively high price levels, but the potatoes must first grow.

Niels van der Boom

Niels van der Boom is a senior market specialist in potatoes and other soft commodities at DCA Market Intelligence.

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