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Potato farmers forced to trial 'expensive' new watering system to ward off drought threat to summer crop

Helena Horton
We are facing another potato shortage - AFP

Potato farmers are being forced to trial an 'expensive' new irrigation system because water levels are so low that a severe shortage of the vegetable has been predicted.

A lack of rainfall last year and so far this year means that irrigation prospects across the country are low, meaning that new measures are having to be put in place in order to ensure at least some potatoes grow.

The latest information for the Environment Agency shows the chips are down for potato growers; river flows are below normal for this time of year, with irrigation prospects declared “moderate to poor” for many areas.

Prospects for East Anglia, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire are described as “poor”, while the situation in Yorkshire and the East Midlands is “moderate”.

A dry winter and a summer drought last year put increased pressure on water supplies, and there has not since been enough rain to counteract this.

The situation for potatoes could be even graver than it was last year, when restaurants including fast-food outlet Leon were forced to replace potato products with imported sweet potatoes.

A spokesperson from ADHB potatoes said that trials of drip irrigation, a new way to enrich the soil with water, are taking place to safeguard the soil against drought.

He explained: "The growers are making contingency plans.

"We have a network of strategic farms across the country and we are running irrigation demonstrations.

"One of the new and less used and more precise is called drip irrigation where you run thin pipes along your potato ridges and the water gradually drips into the ridges. This is rather than spraying.

"We are running these trials across the country and growers are always considering the best ways to irrigate.

"Less water is used and it's more precise but it is more expensive."

 Jerry Knox of the Cranfield Water Science Institute.told Farmers Weekly that water restrictions could be imposed sooner this year than last.

He added: "We have started 2019 in overdraft. The position has changed since the first irrigation prospects were issued in March, as there has been very little rain for the past six weeks or so.

"What took place in 2018 was a wake-up call for farmers and the supply chain. There are challenges from changes in rainfall patterns and from abstraction reform, which has removed some of the previous leeway that existed.

"For some businesses, there is an urgent need to critically reappraise what they can feasibly grow against what area they can reliably irrigate from their existing licenced resources".