Agristo, a Belgian potato-processing firm, has recently forged a partnership with Tereos, a French sugar business, to rejuvenate a disused facility in Escaudœuvres, situated in the north of France and in close proximity to the Belgian border. This joint venture involves a financial outlay of €350 million and is set to create 350 new jobs. The plant is slated to be up and running by 2027.
This initiative comes hot on the heels of another Belgian enterprise, Clarebout, which is on the verge of completing its own processing facility in Dunkirk, a northern port city in France. The plant boasts a daily production capacity of 1,400 metric tonnes.
According to Pierre Le Bruin, the head of the regional Fillère Wallonne de la Pomme de Terre organisation, the rationale behind this Belgian investment in France is the scarcity of additional land for potato farming in Belgium. He mentioned this during the recent Potato Europe event in Tournai, western Belgium, stating that Belgium has nearly maxed out its potato cultivation area at around 100,000 hectares.
The surge in Belgian potato processing has been remarkable since the start of the new millennium. In the year 2000, 1.45 million tonnes of potatoes were processed, as per data from the national body Belgapom. Fast forward to 2022, and that figure has skyrocketed to 5.1 million tonnes—a 250% increase. Over the past decade, more than €2.25 billion has been funnelled into processing plants, with 21 now operational across Belgium. Exports of frozen products have also doubled, now valued at €2.9 billion annually.
The UK stands as Belgium's second-largest export market for frozen chips and other potato-based items, following France, and is also one of the fastest-growing markets. In 2022, the UK imported 403,000 tonnes of products from Belgium, nearly twice the amount imported in 2012. During the same period, imports of Dutch frozen potato products to the UK rose by 13% to 390,000 tonnes.
The burgeoning UK market opens the door for potential Belgian or Dutch investment in a British processing facility. Contract prices for processing potatoes are comparable in both nations this season, and industry representatives at Potato Europe did not dismiss the possibility of such an investment.
Despite a challenging start to the season due to wet conditions, European potato yields have rebounded, although disease remains a concern. Unprecedented warm temperatures in early September accelerated the ageing process of the crops, but farmers are still optimistic about a more abundant harvest compared to last year, which was affected by drought.
One point of concern raised at Potato Europe was the limited availability of seed for the 2024 crop. The Netherlands, the largest producer, has recorded one of its smallest seed-planting areas ever, and there has been a reduction in France as well. Meanwhile, the area dedicated to seed potatoes in Scotland has fallen below the 10,000-hectare mark for the first time. Seed companies at the event indicated that farmers are shifting from seed to less risky ware crops due to higher contract prices, suggesting that seed growers may demand higher prices in 2024 to continue their operations.