Wilson’s Country is upbeat for a better season ahead, despite consumer challenges

Better recent weather has lifted the mood in the Northern Irish potato sector.

L to r: Lewis Cunningham, MD of Wilson's Country, and Kyle Greer, head chef at Belfast's Europa Hotel

L to r: Lewis Cunningham, MD of Wilson’s Country, and Kyle Greer, head chef at Belfast’s Europa Hotel

Wilson’s Country managing director Lewis Cunningham confirmed that planting of this year’s main season potato crops is nearing completion. “The recent spell of good weather has helped the cause of growers,” he explained. “Across the island of Ireland, the vast majority of crops are now in the ground. Early indications are that the acreages planted out are slightly up, year on year.”

June is always a very busy month for potato producers, with new-season Comber expected to be widely available in the shops within the next two to three weeks. 

“After that it’s a case of getting on with the maincrop harvest,” Cunningham continued. “The first set-skin potatoes of the year – mainly Piper and Osprey – will be coming out of the Carlingford area at the end of July and early August. Once we get into September, the first of the main crops grown in Northern Ireland will be ready for digging. Obviously, all of this is totally weather dependent.”

Current potato markets are a mixed bag, according to Cunningham, with retail pack sales remaining very strong, but sales into the catering sector faltering.

“This trend reflects the impact created by the continuing cost-of-living crisis,” he said. “Consumers are happy to treat themselves at home, hence the strength in retail potato sales. However, it remains a concern that many restaurants across Northern Ireland no longer open during the early days of the week at all. This reality has impacted on the catering sector across the board.”

Sustainable focus

Looking ahead, Cunningham said the challenge of securing higher levels of sustainability across the entire agricultural sector, including potatoes, is a major priority – but producers have to get the basics right.

“And this means coming up with a single carbon footprint model and calculator that fits all farm scenario across the UK and Ireland. We don’t have this at the moment. As a result, farmers are receiving mixed messages, where these critically important matters are concerned.”

Cunningham was speaking in the wake of the inaugural ‘International Day of the Potato’ celebration. The initiative, developed by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), is set to be an annual event.

“The potato is the world’s most versatile vegetable, grown in 159 countries,” Cunningham said. “It takes less water to grow a crop of potatoes than is the case with any comparable, staple food crop, including rice and pasta.

“More must be done to market and promote the nutritional value of potatoes here in Northern Ireland. From a nutrition delivery and versatility perspective, they cannot be matched. So, in reality, the humble spud is a nugget of gold within the world of human nutrition.”