Scottish seed potato supplier Caithness Potatoes has called for advances in sorting and harvesting equipment to help reduce the industry’s reliance on labour as wages increase.
In yesterday’s Autumn Budget chancellor Philip Hammond announced that the national living wage paid to workers over 25 would rise from £7.50 to £7.83 per hour next April – costs that, according to company director Mike McDiarmid, cannot be supported by current potato prices.
In order to make operations less reliant on manual labour, and ultimately less costly, McDiarmid said he would like to see the industry move to full optical grading in future and design a harvester that can sort crop out on the field.
“It’s not quite there for us as seed producers because we sell 35-55mm tubers and anything bigger than that we sell as a table potato. But you can’t wash seed potatoes because they won’t keep, whereas you can wash the ones above that.
“I’m asking for a machine that’s going to sort these potatoes dirty and that’s quite a difficult thing.”
What the company would like to see is a ‘sorting harvester’ that gently grades potatoes while they’re still muddy. But the more you handle potatoes at this stage, when the skins still haven’t set, the more damage you risk doing to them.
“There’s a risk associated unless your machine’s really gentle,” said export and breeding director Finlay Dale. “You’re trying to get as much out of the ground as quickly as you can because you’ve only got a four-week window of opportunity before your best harvest conditions are over."
He added: “I think a harvester that sorts potatoes before they go into store would be a big step forward because then people could say I’ve got X tonnes of ware, I’ve got X tonnes of seed, I know my market and I know my price.”