The stocks of potatoes held by growers at the end of March totalled 1.19 million tonnes according to an Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) estimate.

This is 20 per cent higher than the same point last season and five per cent above the five-year average. Drawdown, the rate at which potatoes are delivered from store, was two per cent down on average between January and March.

David Eudall, head of arable market specialists at AHDB, said: “These figures are from the end of March, so they only include one week of the ‘lockdown effect’. But the big impact on the sector has been the way the coronavirus pandemic has changed consumer demand.

“From the 23rd March, the industry saw wholesale closures of fish and chip shops and other foodservice outlets. There are reports of some chip shops reopening across Great Britain, but sales are likely to be significantly reduced.”

AHDB will be publishing further in-depth reports into the processing and chipping sectors on the 7th May, once more data has been analysed.

AHDB response and support

While growers have been hit by the near-total closure of the foodservice sector, sales of fresh and frozen potatoes in supermarkets rose 28 per cent in March, ahead of overall food and drink growth for the period.

Dr Rob Clayton, potatoes strategy director at AHDB, said that the specialist nature of the potatoes used for each part of the market meant some growers could suffer large financial losses.

“With one or two exceptions, a different set of varieties is used to make chips in restaurants from the ones consumers are used to seeing on supermarket shelves. If you’ve got a shed full of potatoes that were meant for making French fries, you might currently be unsure whether a year’s worth of work to grow and store them will amount to anything – it’s a stressful situation.

“The wider industry has been meeting to work through what can be done at pace, we hear that supermarkets are taste testing different varieties for example. But this will only apply to a small proportion of what’s in stock.”

AHDB is increasing consumer marketing activity for the year ahead, with a lockdown boost through social media, advertising, promotion via catch-up TV and activity within retail outlets.

A trade portal will be launched next week where wholesale potato buyers and merchants can post requirements for potatoes, and growers can post available stocks.

“The supply and demand profile of our normally well-established market is changing very fast,” said Rob Clayton. “With one part using stocks quicker than normal, and one with a surplus, the portal should help ensure consumers are able to find top-quality potatoes, which is what we all want.”