March was our final session, held at the AHDB offices in Stoneleigh. The day started with a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis of the GB potato industry where we were split into two groups to look at things from the perspective of the grower and the customer.
We all completed a survey on our thoughts on the course prior to this final day. Helen Williams gave us a detailed session on the feedback we provided and we discussed the points raised. As part of the survey we all picked who we thought deserved the best host award and on the day Jim Davies presented this to Matt Stubbings on behalf of McCain.
After lunch we heard from Mike Storey about the R&D programme to 2020 and where we fit in. He spoke about making the industry more competitive and sustainable, along with the drivers in the potato industry. These drivers included; the market place (obesity, health, convenience), land availability and resources (water, soil, pests), plant health and biosecurity (PCN, Blight, Epitrix), stewardship (CIPC, nematicides, methaldehyde), exploiting genetics and climate change.
He also spoke about where their R&D priorities lie; new markets, managing endemic threats (PCN, blackleg), soil, water and crop nutrition, precision agriculture and innovative engineering, storage management (maintain quality, reduce losses) and horizon scanning, legislation and skills.
He then told us about the three P’s; produce, promote and protect. He spoke about the need to build resilience in production systems and better manage risks in produce, identify and exploit new business opportunities in promote and be prepared for change in protect. He said that the split of their concentration on the three areas is 60% produce, 16% promote and 24% protect. Areas being looked at in produce include PCN, redefining the Smith Period and early detection of storage diseases using gas analysis. For promote areas include potatoes having a high Glycaemic index and bio fortification, the improvement of levels of micronutrients with nanoparticles. In terms of protect areas include climate change and dealing with the press, such as acrylamide issues.
After Mike we heard from Phil Burgess on breaking the yield plateau. He said that in the last ten years the average yield has remained virtually unmoved. He also spoke about yield factors such as light interception (leaf area index), tuber formation (number of stems and tubers), bulking (size of tubers, marketable fraction) and seed age. He also spoke about ground cover, in terms of 100% coverage by the longest day of the year and irrigation.
He spoke about the preparations that need to be done to increase yield including looking at seed the season before for tuber initiation and emergence date, health, age etc. and field choice in terms of soil type, climate, compaction, water, diseases, aspect, previous cropping etc. He also questioned whether too much is grown on marginal land.
Next was a technical workshop by Jon Knight and Bill Parker on working with a reduced chemical armoury. We spoke about the future with less chemicals and thinking outside of the chemical box in terms of things like biofumigants, field choice etc. Jon expanded on this, talking about microbial pesticides, pest behaviour modifiers, genetic manipulation of pest populations, plant immunisation and breeding.