No Small Potatoes: Local Spud Farmers Hopeful For This Year’s Harvest

Potato farmers in Þykkvabær, the spud capital of Iceland, have high hopes for a good harvest this year, RÚV reports. This despite the presence of some potato blight, a fungus that wreaked havoc on last year’s potato crop.

Farmers say that if the weather remains good and sprouting goes well, domestic potato production will be sufficient throughout the year. Potato farmer Markús Ársælsson says this hasn’t been the case in recent years, but he’s still hopeful for this year’s prospects.

“It’s gone just fine and the outlook’s really good, but you never know until the end of the day what the result is going to be,” he remarked. “We might have a frost in August. But as things stand right now, it’s looking good.”

Potato blight is a major concern for farmers in Iceland, Markús agrees. “Yes, it rears its ugly head when weather conditions are like this and we’ve started spraying just to be on the safe side and that’s going pretty well. We’re hoping, just crossing our fingers, that nothing comes up now that makes this summer like the one last year, which was brutal. Because even though we sprayed them, for some reason, nothing helped with anything.”

Farmers take measures to ensure that their potatoes sprout as quickly and prolifically as possible, but growth does sometimes slow, which can make competing with imported potatoes even more difficult, says Markús. Growth delays on the domestic market means that Icelandic grocery stores will import potatoes and then want to sell off all their imported product before looking to buy more potatoes from domestic producers.

“It’s awful, of course,” said Markús. “Customers aren’t offered fresh Icelandic [potatoes], rather it’s ‘we’re going to finish off the old imported ones and then we’ll come back to all of you [Icelandic potato farmers].”

Over the years, domestic potato production has ranged from 7,000 tons all the way up to 12,000 tons in a particularly good year.

Customs Duties on Imported Potatoes May be Suspended

Customs duties on imported potatoes will be likely be suspended from May 3 until August 11, RÚV reports. The Ministry of Industries and Innovation has temporarily lifted these duties because of a shortage of high-quality domestic potatoes. Iceland’s current potato crop suffered after a wet and cold summer last year.

Local farmers and the Icelandic Federation of Trade have been calling for a suspension of import duties for the last three weeks, saying that that even the Sales Association of Vegetable Farmers (SFG) has supported the idea. But these petitions had been denied by the Ministry of Industries’ Advisory Committee on the Import and Export of Agricultural Products, which said that duties could only be suspended in the event of a shortage of domestic product.

Per the provisions of the laws governing agricultural products, there can only be a suspension of import duties when two leading domestic distributors and two key domestic producers cannot keep up with demand. Since technically, there are enough Icelandic potatoes, the advisory committee said there shouldn’t be a suspension of customs duties. Local retailers were unhappy with this interpretation, saying that it missed the point. “We have plenty of potatoes,” Gréta María Grétarsdóttir, CEO of the Krónan supermarket chain remarked. “But the quality of Icelandic potatoes is not as good as Icelanders are accustomed to…these are not the first-class Icelandic potatoes that Icelanders are used to getting.”

After reevaluating of the situation on Tuesday, the Advisory Committee has reversed its position. The proposed suspension of customs duties was presented to domestic producers, who were given four days to respond. However, according to Ólafur Stephensen, the CEO of The Icelandic Federation of Trade, there are two Icelandic potato farmers who “are holding the potato market hostage,” so whether the suspension will actually go into effect is still an open question.

 

Shortage of ‘First Class Icelandic Potatoes’ Say Grocers

The Icelandic Federation of Trade is calling for a suspension of duties on potatoes so that potatoes grown abroad can be imported at an acceptable cost to local consumers. RÚV reports that Iceland’s current potato crop suffered after a wet and cold summer last year. As such, locally-grown potatoes are not up to their usual standard and grocers and produce importers want to see customs duties adjusted accordingly.

“We have plenty of potatoes,” Gréta María Grétarsdóttir, CEO of the Krónan supermarket chain remarked. “But the quality of Icelandic potatoes is not as good as Icelanders are accustomed to…these are not the first class Icelandic potatoes that Icelanders are used to getting.”

 

Imported potatoes “30% more expensive than they need to be”

Guðmundur Marteinsson, CEO of the Bónus supermarket chain, echoed this sentiment, telling RÚV that he finds it strange that import duties on potatoes have not been waived for the time being, given that even the Sales Association of Vegetable Farmers (SFG) has support the idea.

In an announcement on its website, the Icelandic Federation of Trade stated that the Ministry of Industries and Innovation has not complied with requests from importers to suspend custom duties. The organization says this is to the detriment of consumers because imported potatoes will be more expensive. “It isn’t possible to import potatoes unless the duties are cancelled,” said Guðmundur. “We started complaining three weeks ago.”

“When this situation arises, it often happens that customs duties are lifted,” explained Gréta María. “But not now. As such, foreign potatoes are 30% more expensive than they need to be.”

 

No Shortage of Potatoes

By law, the Advisory Committee on the Import and Export of Agricultural Products, which is part of the Ministry for Industries, submits proposals to the minister regarding suspensions of custom duties. This happens, for instance, when there is a shortage of a specific agricultural product on the domestic market. Per the provisions of the laws governing agricultural products, this can only happen when two leading distributors and two key producers cannot keep up with demand. The committee says, however, that no such shortage exists. The situation is being closely monitored, they say, and new data on the local potato crop will be obtained on April 23.

“It’s very strange because SFG’s largest retailer has sent a letter to the committee in which it urges for tolls to be cancelled because there are not enough potatoes of an acceptable quality,” said Guðmundur. “There aren’t enough, but there are some. We’re scraping together what we can for the weekend,” he said, referring to the Easter holiday this week. “That’s where we’re at.”

Ólafur Stephensen, the CEO of The Icelandic Federation of Trade, had stronger words for the committee. “Saying that there’s no impending shortage is preposterous,” he wrote in the published announcement. “And it means that importers are losing the precious time it takes to order and bring into the country products that meet consumer demand.”