From seed potatoes to sustainable potatoes

We talk to Tomasz Jardzioch, President of the Management Board of HZPC Sp. z o.o. about sustainable potato cultivation in Poland, the challenges related to the implementation of the European Green Deal and the particularity of Polish agricultural producers.

Please tell us what the process of growing potatoes in Poland looks like?
Potatoes are made from seed potatoes, i.e. potatoes intended for planting. They come from a plantation that has been planted out of elite or certified material and has been qualified, tested and recognized as seed material under the supervision of the State Plant Health and Seed Inspection Service. The seed potatoes are sorted by the producer into fractions, and then they are placed in special packages, accompanied by a plant passport.

The process of growing a potato begins with the identification of the market and then its segment, for which the farm wants to produce: table potatoes, potatoes for chips, French fries or for starch. The next step is to choose the right variety which is determined by the expected harvest time, the yield that can be obtained on a given type of soil and the market requirements as to the quality parameters of the product. Before the seed potatoes reach the field, they can be pre-sprouted. Then they are planted in a well prepared and warm soil.  All field activities related to fertilizing, plant protection or irrigation are performed taking into account the individual needs of a given variety.  It is recommended to handle the tubers very gently during harvesting to avoid bruising and damage. Depending on the preferences of the recipient of potatoes, the harvested tubers are sold in the fall or from the store. During packaging, potatoes are often graded into fractions, then washed and packed according to the recipient’s requirements.

In Poland, the choice of varieties is usually dictated by the market, i.e. the direct recipient of the product who   determines the requirements for its quality parameters and characteristic features depending on the intended use of the potatoes. For example, potatoes for the production of chips should have a round shape, and for the production of French fries should be oval. Depending on the market segment, the choice of variety also determines the color of the flesh or the level of starch in the tuber. An equally important argument in the selection of varieties is the possibility of obtaining high yields in given soil and climatic conditions in which the farm operates.

Polish consumers in their choices are primarily guided by their own preferences regarding appearance, taste, size and origin. Depending on where they live, they also prefer a different color of the flesh. White-fleshed potatoes are popular in the east of Poland, and yellow in the west.

Where do seed potatoes for potato cultivation in Poland come from?
Our suppliers are mainly domestic entities with which HZPC signs cultivation contracts. On the other hand, seed potatoes in basic grades needed for reproduction are imported directly from the Netherlands. Our cooperation regarding the reproduction of seed potatoes takes place mainly with producers located in the north of Poland, due to good conditions for their cultivation. These are both family farms and large agricultural enterprises. We additionally support our contractors with professional advice and a wide range of available varieties.

The recipients of our seed material are, however, mainly domestic farms. To a slightly lesser extent, our clients are foreign customers. The recipients of seed potatoes are usually located around production (processing) plants and in areas typical for potato production. The key challenge we face every year is the variability of yields per hectare, which is often associated with a shortage or surplus of goods on the Polish market, and thus with a large price fluctuation.

What are the most important challenges for Polish farmers in sustainable potato cultivation?
We talk about sustainable potato cultivation when it is part of the production on a sustainable farm. This concept should not be considered in the context of only one crop, but in terms of complex activities. These are activities aimed at ensuring the profitability of agricultural activity, limiting its negative impact on the environment, and thus society, as well as at deepening integration with it.

A sustainable approach to running a farm assumes, inter alia, diversification of crops to reduce the risk of doing business, and then optimization of the production process, which at the same time allows for responsible management of the available natural resources. Optimizing potato production boils down to, among other things, activities such as precise fertilization based on the balance of nutrients in the soil, precise application of plant protection products based on decision support systems, or irrigation of plantations based on soil moisture sampling and individual meteorological forecasts. Its aim is to increase the efficiency of the use of means of production, also through the use of modern technological solutions. This is one of the essential elements of increasing the profitability of agricultural activity, which is the basis of a sustainable approach to farming. This profitability does not mean profitability in the short term, but assumes the economic stability of the activity in the long term. This is how sustainable production differs from mass production. It focuses not only on the farm’s ability to function in the long term, but also on its survival in the conditions of unfavorable market situations. A sustainable approach to profitability therefore requires a shift from short-term profit thinking to a long-term business strategy that allows one to effectively prepare for various economic scenarios.

How do you support farmers in applying the principles of sustainable agriculture?
HZPC supports the model of sustainable farming through individual advice on the sustainable cultivation of seed material dedicated to its producers. It is also a founding member of the Polish Association of Sustainable Agriculture “ASAP” which is actively involved in the promotion of this idea and the education of the Polish agricultural and consumer environments.

In addition, we undertake a number of our own activities, such as the implementation of a new tool called Even Greener. It is an online calculator that helps farmers choose the best potato variety for them and the most optimal one from the point of view of growing conditions and the product purpose. It takes into account such parameters as: market destination, expected yield, efficiency in the use of fertilizers, resistance to harmful pathogens, resistance to drought and storage stability. Thanks to Even Greener, farmers can easily choose a variety that is adequate to their needs which is also a support for sustainable practices on their farms.

What role will the implementation of the European Green Deal assumptions play in potato growing?
We need to wait for detailed implementing regulations in the European Green Deal area to be able to say what impact it will have on Polish farms.  However, there are already considerable concerns about the reduction in the use and the withdrawal of certain plant protection products, as well as the increase in the area of organic farming, especially in potato cultivation. The solutions proposed by the Green Deal today call into question the effectiveness of the protection of this sensitive crop, which requires intensive actions, especially in the fight against pathogens such as late blight, alternaria or insects. Due to the limitations of the said Green Deal, the challenge for farmers may be to obtain adequate productivity and product quality, and thus the ability to meet the requirements of both the consumer and processing markets.

Another important issue is the increase in agricultural production costs, which will certainly be felt not only by the average farm, but also by the consumer himself. Nevertheless, these difficulties are related to a certain transitional stage that is necessary to overcome on the path to sustainable farming in Europe. Looking ahead, it is primarily the only chance to maintain agricultural productivity, especially in the face of challenges related to population growth and climate change, as well as to protect natural resources from which future generations are to draw.

In this context, how does the Polish agricultural production market look like compared to other countries in the EU?
From our perspective, the Polish agricultural market is highly unstable compared to other EU countries. It results from the advantage of production for the free market over contracting. In our country, the number of small farms that produce mainly for their own needs still prevails. A higher percentage of contracting is therefore usually observed in large farms. The predominance of production for the free market results in large fluctuations in the supply of goods, and hence, price fluctuations, from low to high or very high, often being the result of speculative actions.

Moreover, in the EU countries, a significantly greater percentage of seed material is purchased, and not multiplied and replanted on the farm, which results in greater professionalism in this field of production. In Western countries, there is also more investment in precise agricultural production, which guarantees high yields, repeatability and stable income (precise agriculture, irrigation, fertigation, etc.). In our opinion, the greatest challenge for the coming years will be to ensure that there exists sufficiently large and stable agricultural production for the growing number of people to meet their food needs

Thank you for the interview!