Insect pest takes heavy toll on potato growers

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Potato growers say they are out of pocket by $120 million as they battle a pest, the tomato potato psyllid.

Potatoes New Zealand chairman, Opiki grower Terry Olsen, said it was costing growers through reduced yields, having to use insecticides, extra crop monitoring and management, as well as the downgrading of many potatoes.

The psyllid was first discovered in 2006, and the cost of $120m is according to a new report from Potatoes New Zealand. It said the farm gate cost was $28m, or 20 per cent of the value of the potato crop.

The report was written by ELAK Consultants. The survey was commissioned by Potatoes NZ, with funding from the Sustainable Farming Fund.

Forty-two growers, five processors and three seed merchants were interviewed for the report.

Ron Gall, business manager for Potatoes NZ, said he was concerned about the impact on the industry.

“The New Zealand industry simply can’t afford to continue to absorb this scale of damage.

“Unless we get help to fund research on a solution to this problem, some growers will exit the industry, and processors may have to close their doors,” he said.

Mr Olsen said the potato industry was on the cusp of a national crisis.

“Our industry is in a very difficult position. We know research is fundamental in finding a solution to the psyllid, but our growers’ and processors’ pockets are empty – we need more support from somewhere.”

He said Potatoes NZ would make an application to the Primary Growth Fund, encouraged by Agriculture Minister David Carter.

But it would be at least a year before that was completed, Mr Olsen said.

“In total, Potatoes NZ has spent or committed about $1.3m since the beginning of 2008, and quite frankly, we have no more money to spend.

“We have received significant assistance from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry’s Sustainable Farming Fund, in addition to Plant and Food Research, but more help is needed.”

He said Opiki used to be a big area for potato growing, but it had fewer growers as dairy farming grew.

He said the pysllid seemed to have less impact on the South Island’s potato-growing areas.

“We need to know why. We should be open about all ideas, because the solution may come from left field.”

The psyllid is a small plant-feeding insect which transmits a disease that causes leaf yellowing, plant death, and brown markings – the “zebra chip” symptom in cooked potato tubers.


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