What, no potato?

By ANTHONY PROBERT | posted on May 18, 2017

THE reality of a crippled market is starting to mount as the region’s potato growers face the threat of a psyllid outbreak.

The tomato potato psyllid (TPP) is an exotic pest that has been detected by both commercial and domestic growers in the Perth metropolitan area.

Although the pest affects productivity in other fruit and vegetable crops, the specific threat for potato growers lies in the associated bacteria that TPP is known to carry which causes zebra chip, which renders the vegetable inedible.

As a result of the detection of the insect in Perth, the movement of host fruit and vegetables and used machinery and equipment from WA has been blocked by eastern states.

TPP has not been detected near Albany and there is no evidence of the zebra chip bacteria Candidatus Liberibacter solanacearum (CLso), despite the Department of Agriculture and Food setting hundreds of traps since the outbreak in Perth.

Third generation Albany potato farmer Julian Ackley said the trade restrictions to the eastern states were frustrating as it had not only impacted big exporters, but also created an oversupply in WA.

“We’ve all got product sitting here that is fine, but we can’t sell it because the door is shut.

“The problem is the crops are all available now and it’s all perishable. It’s not like it only affects a little bit of product over a longer period of time.”

Mr Ackley said his attempts to divert potatoes bound for the Eastern States to the local market were not viable, with prices depressed at least $100 per tonne.

“We didn’t even get a quarter of our costs back,” he said.

Remaining potatoes would more than likely be fed to livestock or go to diary farmers who were already oversupplied with wasted potatoes.

The future of his own operation and the industry in general was not something Mr Ackley preferred to dwell on.

“It doesn’t bear thinking about. I have my doubts about next year,” he said.

Fellow local grower and industry representative Colin Ayres exports the majority of his seed potato crop to the eastern states and has been hit hard by the trade restrictions.

He has already made the tough decision to lay-off four permanent staff and would not be employing backpackers and other casual labour. While he had one eye on the broader impact of the industry, Mr Ayres said he had some challenges to face with his own operation.

“Our program will be about half of what it was this year: hence, our labour force has been drastically reduced,” he said.

“To downsize, there is also a mountain of work to do in the office before you even get near a tractor.”

Mr Ayres said he was comfortable with the WA Department of Agriculture’s efforts since the detection of TPP and new Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan in her response to the crisis.

But he was scathing of the industry’s failure to act on a national level and enact the Emergency Plant Pest Response Deed sooner. The deed is in place to deal with the response to national pest incidents.

“It took six weeks for the deed to be triggered. If that’s an emergency response then God help us,” he said.