Tony Bambridge runs B&C Farming, deep in the UK's potato belt, north of Norwich. His staff of 19 'lift' 10.5 to 11.5 tonnes of potatoes each year. That's a lot of spuds. But in the past few years Bambridge has seen 'a significant decline'. Things look bleak for Solanum tuberosum whichever way you look at it.
There's a serious spud downturn on Bambridge's farm that he estimates to be about '8% to 9% from a few years ago'; not exactly catastrophic, but hardly good news either. And he says pessimistically: 'I really don't think we're going to get that percentage back.' Sadly, his fears are supported by the data. Kantar Worldpanel found potato consumption in the home fell by 8% in the year ending June 2014. Worse, it found that 90% of consumers weren't even aware they were eating fewer spuds. It's an unacknowledged deficit.
The potato downturn started to become evident in the credit crunch, which had an effect on food wastage. So, as potatoes come in big bags and tend to go sprouty after a week, they lost out to long shelf-life rivals such as rice, pasta and noodles. 'Then that pattern of decline accelerated after 2012's terrible wet weather,' says Bambridge. 'It meant the consumer got poor-quality potatoes that were also expensive due to short supply.' The industry tried to 'premium-ise' potatoes by putting them into smaller packs - you've probably noticed fewer 5kg and 2.5kg packs on supermarket shelves - and visibility dropped even further.
This spud deficit has also been exacerbated by other reasons associated with taste and fashion. 'Our best customers are dying,' says Bambridge frankly. 'Ask your grandparents about potatoes. They ate loads. Potato eating is age- specific.' And they've lost market share to other, racier forms of carbohydrate. The young are choosing pasta, pizzas, curries with rice; foods that Bambridge says are considered 'trendy and exotic and different. Meanwhile, potatoes are taken for granted.'
Potato sales have fallen as Brits take more interest in exotic foods
It's a shame, as the UK has always been a major potato chomper. 'They're part of the fabric of the nation,' says Bambridge. 'Guy Fawkes' night, fish and chips, jacket potatoes, crisps.' Indeed, most schoolchildren know the story about how Walter Raleigh brought the potato to the UK from the Americas. Yes, it may not be true, but it helped the spud become a great British mascot product.
It's not just us either. In the US, and despite the mass transmutation of the potato into 'fries', there has been a similar fall. The consumption of potatoes has slowed by nearly 25% since the mid-1990s, particularly fresh potatoes. All that hard work - peeling, washing, baking, mashing - doesn't work in a convenience economy that favours processed food.
Spuds have also been pushed aside by a succession of fashionable diets that counsel against carbohydrates, such as the Atkins diet. As in the UK, potato growers are seeking to arrest decline by finding new ways to market: gourmet varieties, smaller potatoes, promoting new recipes. The US Potato Board is now running ads in glossy magazines.
The Potato Council has yet to try that, but it is leading the tuber fightback by positioning the spud as our top staple: healthy, wholesome and replete with possibility. 'Potatoes are the nation's favourite vegetable and we have a fantastic potato heritage,' says the council's spokeswoman Caroline Evans. 'Trouble is, they compete with such a wide choice of carbohydrates.'
Even so, she says, potatoes are still good business. There are approximately 2,300 growers in the UK pulling up six million tonnes a year, making £1.018bn a year, and the UK exports seeds too. 'Potatoes are still an important crop here,' says Bambridge. 'They're bigger than Coca-Cola.'
Potatoes are also important to the UK because 88% are home grown in a season that lasts from May to October, a fact that informs another line from the Potato Council. 'Food security has become a real issue and our potato industry has a role to play.' Only 12% of the potatoes we eat are imported - from Cyprus, Egypt, Israel and Jersey, mostly in the late winter - so we're not far off self- sufficiency in spuds, although frozen chips are mostly imported from Belgium and the Netherlands.
David Walker OBE, chair of the Fresh Potato Suppliers' Association (FPSA), is one of the potato's greatest advocates. 'Potatoes are fascinating,' he says. 'People become obsessed with them.' The challenge is to reinvigorate this vegetable, all too often called 'humble', so Walker takes part in events like the Potato Council's recent seventh East Midlands Potato Day, where, in a curious Zen-like exercise, growers were invited to 'think like a potato plant'. There's also Potato Week in October, with potato-tasting menus and so forth.
About six million tonnes of potatoes are grown in the UK every year
Still, Walker admits that potatoes suffer from marketing blight. 'Our key problem is that potatoes have an image problem,' he says. 'They're sold in large, unattractive bags that are unappealing.' They need better imagery on packs, he reckons, to stir people into a new appreciation. 'We're doing a lot of work on the emotional side of potatoes,' he enthuses. 'We need to let people know what a really nice potato meal looks like: to show it mashed, sliced, dauphinois, fondant, julienne, whatever. Just show the finished product. Sophistication is key.'
There are other perception problems to overcome. 'Potatoes are virtually fat-free, but people think they make them fat,' says Walker, who also muses that they suffer a visual disadvantage against pasta and rice, where sauce and carb combine in one visual whole. Their lack of inclusion as part of the five a day doesn't help, 'because the DoH thinks that will make people eat loads of chips'. Even those irritating folk who have gone 'gluten-free' won't save the spud.
So the council's idea is to bring the potato back out as a part of exotic world cuisine. 'Think aloo gobi,' says Caroline Evans. 'Tapas. Gnocchi.' Potato vodka, which entrepreneur farmer William Chase is making? 'That too.' Also, consumers need to get to know potato varietals better: Maris Pipers are good all-rounders, but King Edwards are good Sunday roasters. 'There's an opportunity there,' says Evans, pointing to a Potato Council chart that indicates Cara for 'fluffy', Annabelle for 'salad' and Accord for 'smooth'. Spuds could follow wine into the arena of mass connoisseurship.
Walker believes that 'potatoes urgently need new creativity'. He cites with approval Ferndale Farm in Norfolk, which has cleverly marketed its potato bags as 'The Great Unwashed', and the national company Greenvale, which has pioneered branded potatoes. Fresh potatoes need to get past that 'boring staple' barrier, he says, 'where they go into the shopping basket with milk'. Should there be generic advertising of the 'eat more potatoes' type? 'I'd like to but the Potato Council only has £1m to spend on marketing,' says Walker, 'and, anyway, I'm not sure generic advertising works.'
Instead, the Potato Council is seeking a 'Digital Potato Ambassador' to make those emotional connections with potatoes. And if you want to apply, your task is clear: to 'sex up' the spud and bring it back to the British table.
5m tonnes: annual average British potato crop
£1.018bn: value to British farmers of that crop in 2012/13
£3.1bn: value to British retailers of potato sales for the first eight months of 2013
90kg: per capita British potato consumption in 2012
8%: year-on-year decline in potato consumption in Britain