Weather warning that chips are down

Next week is National Chip Week. Chris Berry looks at the importance of this staple crop and speaks to one farmer on growing conditions.

Julian and James Hopwood

We eat roast potatoes, boiled potatoes, mashed potatoes, wedges, all flavours of crisps and of course many different varieties of chips. Rice and pasta may have become a more regular part of our annual consumption too, but the potato still holds an important place in our weekly intake.

This Monday sees the start of National Chip Week to celebrate our own very British invention of fish and chips.

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There are some families who eat chips with everything and I must confess to using the word “chips” in a somewhat derogatory fashion at times when looking at overweight people – “too many chips”. But the fact remains that as a nation we love them and £1 of every £100 we spend on food is spent on fish and chips.

We consume 1.6m tonnes of potatoes that are made into chips every year. In total the UK crop runs to some 6m tonnes of potatoes grown for all variations of the product.

Potatoes are a major crop in Yorkshire, particularly in the Vale of York and Vale of Pickering area. Our farmers are well versed in what makes the right potato for the right market, whether it is destined for chipping, crisping, jacketing, mashing, boiling or roasting. They are also aware of how influential factors such as rain and frost can be. Harvest time is usually around September to early November.

Julian Hopwood grows just over 100 acres of potatoes at Grimston Grange and Clock Farm between Heslington and Dunnington, near York. He grows potatoes that are primarily going into production for crisps or chips. While the quality of his crop has maintained its high standard his yield has suffered in the past year due to the weather.

So which varieties make the ideal chip, is it the King Edward or Maris Piper? And is there that much of a difference between one potato variety and another?

“The main variety for chips at present is Maris Piper, that’s the one that you’re more likely to find you are eating from fish and chip shops. But we as a company do a huge amount of work on chipping varieties. Taste tests and cooking tests are important and what everyone is looking for is a nice fluffy texture of chip with a crisp outer.

“Variety development is extremely important in the potato industry. Daisy is certainly a potato that we feel is a coming star and looks a really nice chipper but there are others such as Maureen, which is an early one, Cabaret and Royal.”

Self-sufficiency in producing enough of our own potatoes to fulfil demand in the UK has been falling short for a number of years, but this has been exacerbated with the 2012 crop looking as though it will have only produced somewhere in the region of 5.2 million tonnes. That would be a 13 per cent drop on the 2011 crop.

The shortfall on 2011 may not mean that the 1.6 million tonnes we eat as chips each year will include imported potato, but it is a reminder of how much the weather plays its part in agriculture and how that in turn impacts on future cropping patterns.

The county’s potato growing farmers are hoping that this year’s crop, due to be planted in April in Julian’s case, doesn’t suffer the same inclemency as 2012. James says early reports suggest the volume of land being used for potatoes has fallen.

“There is talk of five per cent less ground being planted with potatoes this year and that has led to significant imports from lowland European countries such as France, Germany and Belgium.”

National Chip Week is an indication of just how concerned fish and chip shops are of protecting their future. The fish and chip shop market is currently worth £1.2b a year but with an increased purchase of “chip shop” fish and frozen chips in supermarkets there are those who believe our days of visiting our local chippie are numbered. More than 10,000 fish and chip shops across the country would of course beg to differ.