Eddie on the potato industry

3 Mar , 2015  

In January, 2014, Eddie Doyle was elected chairman of the IFA’s national potato committee. We spoke to the Kilkenny man about how he intends to nurture a better working environment for growers and to heighten the profile of the humble spud, which certainly hasn’t received its fair share of good press in recent times. It’s time to set the record straight…

People who claim that potatoes are in any way bad for us are ill-formed or have a hidden agenda. That’s the contention of the IFA’s potato chairman Eddie Doyle … and I would be inclined to agree with him. After all, weren’t our ancestors all essentially raised on potatoes and what harm did it ever do them? Is obesity not a modern phenomenon? Also, should we not endorse and support an indigenous industry that is at the very heart of rural Ireland? A rhetorical question if ever there was one!

As chairman of the national potato committee, Eddie Doyle of Doyle Produce in Mooncoin, County Kilkenny intends to heighten awareness of the benefits of the potato and to help re-educate Irish people, who seem to have decided for some dubious reason that pasta and rice represent healthier options.

As well as the chairman and vice-chairman (Larry Whelan), 20 other committee members sit on the national potato committee, representing all the major potato-growing counties. Membership includes two new additions from Cork – Nora Sheehan and John Griffin. “Every county is well-represented,” notes Eddie, who in January of this year succeeded Thomas Carpenter from Fordstown in County Meath as chairman. In a nutshell, Eddie’s new brief within the IFA’s potato committee is to represent the interests of potato growers nationwide.

“At present, we are engaging regularly with merchants and we are also lobbying politicians, even though so far we are getting very poor results from the latter. They are giving us plenty of spiel about the 2020 crop but in the meantime we are losing a serious amount of jobs in the potato- and vegetable-growing industries.

“There are an awful lot of people in Ireland employed in these sectors and they deserve to have their livelihoods protected. It’s a very labour-intensive industry … here in Kilkenny alone there are approximately 300 people employed in potato and vegetable growing. And they are getting very little help from the Government.”

Supermarkets aren’t much better… “The supermarkets are wiping the floor with potato and vegetable growers,” Eddie continues. “They are putting us out of business and the Government is standing idly by while they run vegetable and potato promotions, giving stuff away. Any opportunity they get to exploit the Irish potato and vegetable grower, they take it. Most of the supermarkets are good at supporting Irish, but that comes with conditions regarding the price they are willing to pay.”

As growers get a smaller and smaller share of consumer price, potato production is coming under increasing threat. It’s approaching a crisis situation and something is going to have to be done. “Growers are getting between 26% and 30% of the retail price,” says Eddie. “The supermarkets are taking a very big cut and the growers need a bit more of that margin. We are as low as ever with regards to prices, although things have picked up a little bit thanks to the export market to Poland.”

In fairness to Eddie, he isn’t blind to the fact that in certain instances growers themselves are part of the problem. “At the end of the day the grower has to do their sums and need to know the costs before they produce potatoes,” he notes. “Sometimes, they are growing without a market and they are effectively pulling the rug out from under others who have been in the industry for years.

“Exports are addressing the over-supply in part but, for example, the foolishness of growers who planted Kerr Pink seed last year without first looking at where they were going to sell them was almost beyond belief. This led to a surplus of supply and ultimately did nobody any favours.”

Another factor that has severely damaged growers is the shift from 10kg bags to 7.5kg bags. “In 2007, 6% of potatoes volume-wise were being sold in 7.5 kilo bags,” says Eddie. “This year, that figure stands at 28%. Meanwhile, the volume of spuds sold in 10 kilo bags has fallen from 37% to just 9%.

“Supermarkets have succeeded in convincing consumers that they are paying less, whereas they are in fact paying more. At the same time, they have managed to remove 25% of the volume of potatoes out of the market, which – with the potato already in decline – is a serious issue.

“The market is declining year on year and every time you open a paper or switch on the television it’s all rice, pasta, pizzas, couscous and even sweet potatoes being marketed. But never the potato.

“For this reason, we are embarking on a €1m marketing campaign in conjunction with growers, merchants, the Department of Agriculture and the EU. This campaign will run for three years from 2015 and will hopefully play a key role in helping get the popularity of the potato back.

“You do wonder where nutritionists are getting their information from. The reality is that the potato is much healthier than other carbs. It is the least fattening and the most nutritious. It’s listed as a superfood by the University of California and is a natural product with no additives.

“The likes of ‘Operation Transformation’ and the safefood website are doing us a great disservice; like many dieticians, they are deliberately steering people away from potatoes.”

Eddie Doyle has been synonymous with the agricultural sector in Ireland all his working life. He comes from a family with a rich background in farming (his late father Peter, who passed away in January, was a regular on the Irish ploughing circuit for four decades and represented Ireland four times in the World Ploughing Championships) and he is determined to do everything he can to improve the plight of the potato grower during his two-year term (with an option of two more years) as chairman of the national potato committee:

“From the growers’ perspective, I will concentrate on getting growers to grow for existing markets and put time, thought and money into marketing the product before planting it and to make sure they are growing a product that consumers want.

“On the merchant and supermarket side, I want to get them all to wear the Irish jersey and to stick rigidly to Irish products and help create a sustainable business that we can all make a living from. This is a great Irish product; wholesome and nutritious. We have a good product and we need merchants to stick by us and not to manipulate the market. Only this way can we have a strong industry going forward.

“Remember, when everybody ate potatoes, meat and vegetables 30 years ago, obesity was not a problem. The potato will fill kids up and it won’t put weight on them. It is a very healthy food, Our health is the most important thing we have and the education curriculum in this country has been sadly lacking in the past. Very few of us were taught a thing at school about the single most important factor that will affect us for the rest of our lives – our diet.”

Taken from Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 2 No 1, May 2014

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