Adam Henson’s farm talk – Where our food comes from part five: potatoes

It originated in the Andes, but today the potato is a British staple. Adam Henson explains how the spud makes it on to your plate and reveals why prices are rising.

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Whether baked, boiled, roasted, mashed, fried or chipped, the humble spud is a huge part of our everyday life.

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It’s a mainstay of the UK diet and chips are a much-loved national favourite. But there’s nothing British about the origins of the world’s most important tuber; they were first cultivated around 6,000 years ago by the Peruvian Incas in the Andes.

Everyone of my age was taught that Sir Walter Raleigh introduced potatoes to Elizabethan Britain but, as always with these things, the truth isn’t quite as clear-cut as that. These days, historians argue that they might have been discovered by Sir Francis Drake or even washed up on the Irish coastline from shipwrecked galleons of the Spanish Armada.

Whatever the history, what we do know for certain is that around the globe there are thousands of potato varieties. In the UK alone, more than 450 are grown, although it’s unlikely that you’ll see more than a handful of these in your local supermarket.

There are three main potato groups. So-called fluffy varieties such as Maris Piper and King Edwards are perfect for chips and roasties; smooth spuds such as Desiree are best mashed or turned into wedges; while ‘waxy’ salad potatoes such as Charlotte and Duke of York taste best boiled or steamed.

Going underground

Potatoes are planted in April and harvested in October, with huge numbers put into storage to make sure that there’s a plentiful supply throughout the year.

When you drive around the countryside, you’ll see ridges in the landscape where the soil has been formed into rows. That’s done so that the potatoes can grow underground but are still easily harvested. Ideally they need deep, good quality soil that isn’t too stony.

When they’re ready, the spuds are lifted by a mechanical harvester. This passes them across a grilled shaker, which dislodges the soil and separates the crop from any stones or clods of earth. However, the world-famous Jersey Royal potatoes, grown on the island’s steep, coastal slopes, are almost all gathered by hand.

Before planting, the vast majority of farmers will have secured a contract with a food company, crisp manufacturer or supermarket. Often they’ll agree a fixed price, which is as good as guaranteed income for the grower when there’s a healthy harvest, but can be disastrous if the crop is poor.

Unfortunately, the current price, range and quality of British potatoes in the shops have been affected by the terrible weather we had last year. The rainy spring of 2012 delayed the planting of seed potatoes and once they were in the ground, the lack of summer sunshine slowed their growth. But that wasn’t the end of the nightmare for growers; the wet conditions meant managing and harvesting the crop was fraught with difficulties, as many farmers found it almost impossible to use tractors and heavy machinery in the rain-sodden fields.

The chips are down

If sunlight hits a potato, it will go green. So where the soil was washed off the field ridges, the potatoes on the top were unusable and the ones underneath rotted.

Potatoes can be susceptible to disease and the most notorious of them all is blight. It was the cause of the great famine that struck Ireland in the 1840s and led to a million deaths from starvation and epidemics such as cholera. Even today, potato blight is a headache and many growers use regular fungicide sprays to protect their crop. There’s currently a great debate about the pros and cons of a new genetically modified potato, which is resistant to blight.

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In the meantime, demand for potatoes is outstripping supply. In November 2011, the price of a tonne of potatoes on the open market was £90, but a year later it had risen to £252. The fear is that after such a disastrous harvest, many potato farmers will abandon the crop. That, of course, would mean another spud shortage next year and the need for more imports.