Maltese freeze is bad news for Dutch fries, as exports are down 50%

Malta has seen a massive drop of 50% in potato export to the Netherlands, due greatly to the harsh effects winter has had on the island according to one of its main producers

The Maltese potato season usually runs through to June. The crop is exported between April and May
The Maltese potato season usually runs through to June. The crop is exported between April and May

A harsh winter and the gale force storm that caused some €8 million in damages to the Maltese islands in February brought one more piece of bad news.

It is a massive 50% drop in potato exports to Malta’s main export market in the Netherlands, nothing short of 3,000 tonnes less of the fabled Mediterranean tuber.

Raphael Scerri, one of Malta’s major exporters, says that last winter left its cruel mark on the potato.

“It was a harsh combination: potatoes need rain, but there was excessive rainfall, which drenched the crop. And there were the colder temperatures, which stunted growth. And finally there was the wind, which weakens the crop. Potatoes need rain, but they also need the UV rays of the sun.”

The storm also played a factor in damaging the annual export, according to Altena Potatoes’ spokesperson Kees Schouten, of the Netherlands.

“Demand is good. With the first Maltas, it is always a matter of dividing them up. We currently have more demand for Maltas than we have supply... The supply is, unfortunately, very limited. In February, a storm swept through the area and left its mark. There could well be 25 to 30% fewer import potatoes from that area. Bad weather is also currently hindering grubbing,” Schouten was quoted as saying in a business news website.

“It is still a good thing that Easter is later this year. Certainly, if we get good weather, there will be more demand. Hopefully, there will also then be more volume available. Prices are now at a high level. However, the old Dutch harvest is also priced well. But I expect a lot of consumers would like to eat new potatoes.”

The Maltese potato season usually runs through to June. The crop is exported between April and May.

Despite being one of Malta’s most celebrated exports, over a decade potato exports have fallen from 7,200 tonnes in 2004 crop to just 3,100 tonnes in 2014, a massive 56% drop. Scerri told MaltaToday that this year he was expecting the crop to yield 6,000 tonnes, before the winter affected supply.

This relentless decline of potato cultivation in Malta was documented in an overview of the agricultural sector in the national 2018-2028 policy that described export levels falling “drastically” in 2015 and 2016 due to the shortage of rainfall.

Even the area dedicated for the cultivation of potatoes in the Maltese islands has decreased from 1,100 hectares in 2004 to 700 hectares in 2014.

During the same period, the total estimated volume of potatoes produced by Maltese farmers fell from 22,783 tonnes to 12,559 tonnes: a drop of 44%.

In the last decade the Maltese product had to compete with North African potatoes that were “allegedly placed on the market” using the Maltese label.

Assistance from the Special Market Policy Programme for Maltese Agriculture reached €22 million over a period of 10 years, but came to an end in 2014.

Maltese spring potatoes are renowned for their taste and quality in various north European countries. The potato crop is considered as the most important cash crop for Maltese farmers who have been exporting potatoes for over a century.

The yellow fleshed variety Alpha has established a solid foothold on the Dutch market. Potato growers import seeds from Ireland and the Netherlands in autumn so that farmers can plant them between November and January. Apart from importing seeds, Maltese packing houses manage the exportation including grading, product marketing and the export markets.

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