Thu, Mar 30, 2023 5:30 AM

No potatoes in Tapawera




Paddocks lined with potatoes used to be a common sight when coming through Kohatu and Tapawera, now days it’s a sea of green with rows and rows of hops.

So where have all the potatoes gone?

“The job of growing spuds just got too difficult,” says Tapawera ex commercial potato grower Peter Phillips.

“Many different things made spud growing uneconomical which is a shame as we have the perfect potato growing conditions here.”

Tapawera has a great climate for potato growing and due to the Motueka river mineral belt, the soil is rich in magnesium which potatoes love.

But there are no commercial potato growers in Tapawera anymore; there is the odd small patch here and there but none more than half an acre large.

Peter Phillips potato expert and ex commercial grower. Photo: Supplied.

“Years ago, we kind of had Nelson and Tasman to ourselves but that changed.

"We now have produce liners who take produce from Nelson to Christchurch daily, so to make this trip more profitable, they looked for something to bring back, which was potatoes,” says Peter.

This made the transport cheap which enabled a low consumer price as well as offering consumers more variety.

“Consumer price is the main driving factor, and we couldn’t compete with large farms on the flat in Canterbury.

"So, the big growers have gotten bigger, and the smaller ones have dropped out.”

“The bigger growers work on very low margins and good returns; us smaller growers were working on low margins but just didn’t have the volume, so it wasn’t profitable.

"We just don’t have big enough areas of land to get the volume needed.”

Another factor that increased the difficulty around growing potatoes profitably was the cost of machinery.

Machinery costs are eye watering and big-ticket items like a potato harvester is expensive to maintain being a high wear item from being used in the ground all the time.

“You have to have the machines, no one out there is willing to hand pick potatoes these days,” Peter says.

Other machinery required for potato farming includes a tractor, grader, bin tipper and spray equipment.

Machinery needs to be in good condition and maintained regularly as potatoes are a heavy item, around 20 tonne a hectare, and a bin of potatoes weighs around three quarters of a tonne, so the machines need to handle these weights consistently. All this creates expense.

A small insect, similar to the size of an aphid, call Psyllids, also played its part in disturbing potato farming in the Tapawera region.

The insect breeds all year round, lives off nutrients in plants leaves and favours the underside of leaves.

The pest causes damage to the plant and the quality of the potato.

“To control the Psyllids, you get an expensive spray that absorbs into the plant, when the bug sucks the plant, it sucks up the spray,” Peter says.

He also explains that having a detailed spray programme was essential as the bugs can build a resistance to the spray used so a variety of different sprays are required to be effective.

“Spaying is a real balancing act; you don’t want to kill off the beneficials, such as lady bugs who eat the Psyllids and other insects.”

Peter hasn’t grown a Potato for five years but acknowledges that they are a billion-dollar industry.

Despite no potatoes being grown in Tapawera, potato production in New Zealand over the last 10 years has increased.

There are more than 200 potato growers with a growing area of 10,591 hectares.

Around 525,000 tonnes of potatoes are grown annually.

If the average size of a potato is 175g, this is approximately 3 billion potatoes. Approximately one quarter of the annual crop is exported, and exports are made up of fresh and frozen produce and seed potatoes.

Potatoes are grown in all parts of the country with the principle growing areas being Pukekohe (just south of Auckland), Hawkes Bay (east coast of the North Island), Manawatu (lower North Island) and Canterbury in the South Island.

There are more than 50 varieties grown in New Zealand. The main varieties are Russett Burbank, Innovator, Rua, Nadine, Agria, Moonlight, Desiree, Ilam Hardy and Red Rascal.

Dataform 2021 shows the overall value of the industry, including export and domestic market, dropped slightly to $1.095 billion.

The domestic market dropped slightly from $1,054,857 to $993,447in value.

Regardless of the slight drop, New Zealand Potatoes remain a billion-dollar business.

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