European drought: Starch supplier Avebe braces for “historically low potato harvest”

European drought: Starch supplier Avebe braces for “historically low potato harvest”

26 Sep 2018 --- Avebe is increasing the advance payment for potatoes to €67 a ton to mitigate the impact of extreme drought and high temperatures. The Dutch potato starch manufacturer is bracing itself for a substantially lower than usual harvest this season as drought and high temperatures have battered potato yields all over Europe which will lead to a decline in the availability of potato products.

Earlier this month, the Dutch growers association VTA (Verenigde Telers Akkerbouw) warned that the potato harvest 2018 will be much lower than normal. Abundant rainfall at the beginning of the season and drought in the last few months have led to a considerably lower yield, although there is still some difference expected between plots. 

According to VTA, the average yield of samples previously taken was set at 36,426 kg per hectare. In 2017 this was 46,437 kg per ha. This means that the yield per hectare to date is more than 20 percent lower than the previous season and with respect to the five-year average, production is 16.1 percent lower.

Speaking to FoodIngredientsFirst, Avebe spokesperson Janet Katerberg explains why the cooperative decided to increase the advance payment for potatoes and how Avebe will produce significantly less starch which affects cost prices.

“Cooperative Avebe raised the current advance payment for potatoes and decided that the total result of this year’s income will be paid in full to the members.”

“With these measures, the cooperative members are to some extent supported in their financial liquidity. However, the cooperative realizes that for a considerable part of our members the increase can never be high enough to give serious relieve,” she says. 

Drought grips Europe
As Europe is gripped by what many farmers are calling the “worst drought in recent history,” there are concerns over food shortages and financial troubles for Europeans. The Lithuanian government has already declared a state of emergency for the drought and Latvia acknowledged it as a natural disaster of national scale. Norway, Ireland, and Denmark have also imposed water restrictions.

The commodity exchanges for potatoes have been reacting massively to this drought for quite some time. At the same time, some growers of seed potatoes are already raising their prices for 2019, as they are also likely to suffer from reduced yields and quality problems, meaning that the drought could also affect next year’s plantings.

The prolonged shortage of water supply is leading to concerns all over Europe as industrial potato plants have been affected by the drought.

“The European potato harvest will be at a historically low level this year. Due to the yield depression in potato fields – some fields produce more than 75 percent below norm – the availability of potato products will be significantly reduced,” continues Katerberg.

“Clearly this situation has a huge impact on farmer income. Avebe will produce significantly less starch which affects cost prices.”

“Currently all Avebe manufacturing plants are operating. At this moment the harvest takes place and the campaign is only four weeks away. What the real impact is, is hard to predict at this moment.”

“We see such a great variation in the fields and more than ever, the true yield is only shown at the moment the potatoes are harvested. However, it is clear that Avebe, as well as other potato processing companies, has to deal with a substantially lower volume. Meanwhile, we are working closely together with our members to plan plantings for crop 2019 which we hope will normalize the situation,” she adds.

Last week, the board of directors and the Members Council of Cooperative Avebe held intensive talks on the implications of the extreme drought and high temperatures, which will have a serious impact on the members and the company alike. They decided to increase, with immediate effect, the current advance payment for potatoes delivered in the 2018 campaign. 

The advance is €67 euros per ton with 19 percent starch. This makes the advance more than 17 percent higher than last year. Avebe says it will bear the loading and transport costs as usual.

“We want to treat all of our members equally without taking any hostages to fortune. We are therefore taking a well-considered approach that does justice to this year’s situation and is in line with Avebe’s strategic course in which we are working towards a step-by-step increase in the performance price,” adds chairman of the board Bert Jansen.

Earlier this month, another potato starch supplier, Emsland, also warned of “dramatic” cost increase to raw materials which will consequently present a massive challenge for growers, processors and their customers.

Due to the crop failures in potato fields, some of which were total failures, the availability of potato products will be significantly reduced. According to the Raw Materials Procurement Department of the Emsland Group, potato fields of the contract farmers of the group are in dire conditions.

In light of the challenges confronting European companies as a whole, the Emsland Group has developed a raw materials assurance model with the representatives of the producers. This model supports growers by offsetting a portion of the damage by offering a drought subsidy and simultaneously providing incentives to deliver as much raw material as possible. Furthermore, a raw material guarantee subsidy is set to secure the cultivation of crops for the year 2019.

Speaking to FoodIngredientsFirst, Patrick Geers, Marketing Associate for Emsland, says: “Potatoes as a natural product can always experience ups and downs in the harvest. Therefore, it is not possible to give any indication for the future of next year's crops. As far as we know, there will be sufficient seed potatoes for next coming crop. However, we can already foresee that at the beginning of new season, stocks will be empty. So we can expect another tight year regarding availability and the recovery of the stocks.”

“This year, the cost increase will be dramatic and for the next season we expect further prices on higher levels, maybe not as extreme as this year but significantly over last year’s level,” he notes.

Details on whether the raw material costs will have to be passed on to customers and by how much have not yet been disclosed by the major potato starch supplier.

Potatoes are not the only crop seriously affected by weather patterns and drought this season. The drought in many regions of the European Union and Eastern Europe has caused significant damage to wheat, maize and barley crops

According to a market review of the wheat crop from Limagrain Céréales Ingrédients (LCI), an international cooperative group created and directed by French farmers, quality of wheat is also impacted, while the price is being pushed down by Russian exporters flooding the market with the crop because they fear the Government is on the verge of enforcing an embargo which will stunt Russian supply in Europe.

Potato-based snacking trends
Another significant point in terms of the expected low potato volumes and the consequent low quantities of potato products is that this historically bad harvest comes at a time when potato products are gaining popularity as a healthy snacking trend. 

Emsland says it is also witnessing a big trend in healthy snacks with low salt/low sugar and low-fat content. 

“The reduction of salt and sugar and low fat in snack formulations is important and an advantage for us, as we (Emsland) use potatoes as a natural source for all our products and the can fulfill this healthy trend due to their composition. They are rich in minerals, proteins, vitamins and low in fat content the Overal Nutritional Quality Index of potatoes is rated in a NuVal score of 93 percent,” Thomas Pruter, Director R&D Emsland, tells FoodIngredientsFirst.

“We see some changes in the tradition of frying the final snacks. It is increasingly common to use procedures such as air puffing or baked. These snacks are very trendy since they are not fried like traditional potato snacks and therefore contain a much lower fat content.”

With harvesting now being finalized, the industry is poised to see what the true numbers are in terms of European potato yields which will also give manufacturers a better handle on just how scarce this raw material will be and how it could impact on potato products. 

By Gaynor Selby

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