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Wet weather, rising fertiliser prices put squeeze on Tasmanian potato growers

Tuesday November 16, 2021 - 20:34 AEDT
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Wet conditions are not unusual in Tasmania, but steady rain through spring has kept the ground waterlogged. - ABC

Wet weather and rising fertiliser prices are forcing farmers to rethink their potato plantings, with tonnages expected to be down significantly in the upcoming season. 

Months of wet weather has made the ground in the northern part of the state too muddy for tractors and other machinery to get onto paddocks.  

The wet ground also increases the risk of crop disease. 

There has also been extra pressure this year because fertiliser prices have skyrocketed.

Former McCain grower representative and seed potato grower Beau Gooch said it was becoming significantly more expensive to grow potatoes.

"Fertiliser costs have put a double-figure [increase] into the cost of growing spuds," he said.  

"If we were going into a dry planting, it probably wouldn't have been an issue. But your risk growing this crop is significantly higher than when the contract you signed was negotiated."

Leigh Elphinstone, Simplot Growers Committee chair and north-west potato grower, said the weather and fertiliser hurdles could result in a potato shortage.

"I would expect at this stage that yields will be down, some crops have gone into ground that's less than ideal," he said.

"Some growers, I'm led to believe, are pulling out of paddocks that are laying too wet.

"It's just going to be too late to get the crop in."

State agronomy manager for Nutrien, Stuart Millwood said the season was significantly behind schedule.

"It's certainly been the wettest winter/spring that we've seen for a number of years," he said.

"As we sit at the moment, we're about 20 per cent of area planted, normally around this time of year we'd be about 80 per cent.

"If we don't get our crops in in good conditions then it certainly reduces the yield ? we always welcome timely rains but at the moment it's been pretty constant." 

Higher risk, less reward

Rising fertiliser costs were taken into account in August's contract negotiations between farmers and the major processors, Simplot and McCain, but since then the price of fertiliser had risen again.

Mr Gooch said the companies needed to offer growers better prices to make up for the significant risk farmers were taking this season.  

"We couldn't get them to recognise the potential for increasing fertiliser costs while we were negotiating [the contracts]," he said.

"The farmer committee has been back to McCain, and the company has offered an increase in the prepayment and a drop in the interest on pre-payments.

"But really that's not helping our bottom line, our return on investment.

"There needs to be a reward for growing this crop. It's a risky crop, and it's getting very expensive to grow them."

Leigh Elphinstone said Simplot growers were facing a similar situation.

"We were able to negotiate a fertiliser clause with Simplot of $4.50 to cover that rise to that point, but since then it's gone up another 40 per cent," he said.

"We haven't met with them again, but I think we probably will in the near future, to discuss where growers are at this present time."

In a statement, McCain said it understood the situation was difficult and was talking to growers.

"Whilst the weather between now and harvest is always difficult to predict, there is still potential for good 2022 crop results from the potato varieties being grown for McCain."

"McCain continues to maintain a dialogue with our grower base and have been working with growers to help manage cost pressures, which are currently being driven by global energy costs and supply restrictions."

Simplot was contacted for comment.


© ABC 2021

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