Last year was tough for potato farmers in Plateau State, the state noted as the country's main producer of potatoes. The farmers/herders crises that saw hundreds of people displaced in June spread to some villages in Bokkos Local Government Area.
Farmers from about 10 major potato producing villages had to flee their homes shortly before harvesting despite expectations of a bumper harvest. They were forced to leave their produce to the destruction and theft by animals and thieves.
Shortly after that, the rainy season aggravated the plight of potato farmers as blight, a potent potato disease caused by a fungus-like organism Phytophthora infestans, ravaged most farms. Crises and blight therefore led to a rapid rise in the cost of potato seeds to as high as N17,000 per bag.
Solomon Michael Arandong is one of the potato farmers in Bokkos who lost their entire farms to blight infestation. Subsequently, the farmer who now farms around the Lamingo dam in Jos North LGA, said he would no longer farm in commercial quantity during the rainy season.
"I lost my entire farm to blight last year; it was a difficult period for me because farm produce worth over N700,000 was lost to potato blight and now I'm starting all over in this little space," he said.
For Magdalene Habila, who also farms by the Lamingo dam, she bought 64 bags of potato seeds at N16,000 per bag in 2018 for the 2019 farming season.
She has already spent about N2.3 million on her farm and hopes to make some profit. "I used to farm around Latiya in Jos South and harvest about 150 bags a year but this farm is bigger and hopefully I may harvest over 200 bags this year," she said.
She said seeds were expensive in 2018 because about 10 major potato producing villages were affected by crises and therefore farmers were unable to harvest their crops. She also ascribed the rise in the cost of seeds to the ravaging potato blight during the rainy season.
"Last year, some people were unable to harvest anything from their farms because of the farmers/herders crises while those who planted during the rainy season suffered huge losses due to potato blight. There were cases of people losing their entire farms to the disease," she said.
There are however those who depend on seeds imported from Holland and, Ibrahim Umar, a farmer and potato supplier said a 50kg of such seeds are sold at about N30, 000 and that new variety would have to be tested with the soil before it is sold to farmers.
"There are those who have connections on how to get the foreign potato seeds and when they buy them they would try them first and then sell to farmers from that variety," he said.
Because potatoes are propagated vegetatively, diseases from the past year will likely be carried over in the potato seeds produced from that farm and so, Magdelene advised, adding that it is important to buy disease-free seed potato.
She warned that most of the cheaper potato seeds could affect yield; because they could either be diseased or they may likely produce very small potatoes. "If you get good seeds, you will harvest large size potatoes, as long as you have good soil and a water source," she said.
Ibrahim Umar who supplies potatoes to Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt said despite the high cost of seeds from last year, it would be difficult to predict whether or not potatoes would be expensive in 2019. "If the demand for potato is high this year, it will be expensive but if it is low the price will fall," he said.
Having often supplied many fast food chains, Umar said the best potatoes in the country were those produced from Bokkos in Plateau State and that most fast food restaurants prefer the Nicola variety because it is longer and therefore great for fries.
But as a supplier, Umar who usually buys from farmers in Bokkos parts of Mangu, Lamingo and Bassa, all in Plateau State, said he felt the brunt of potato scarcity last year.
"There was potato scarcity last year and I had to comb many villages before I could get a few bags to supply my customers. I rushed from one place to another trying to get more before they exhaust the ones I had earlier supplied to them," he recalled.
However, Geoffrey Mador, said though potatoes are usually expensive in April, May and June, it is very cheap during the rainy season because most farmers rely on the rains.
"It is more difficult to farm during the dry season," said Magdalene adding that, the process of bringing water to the farm makes the dry season farming difficult. "You have to get pumping machines, which cost about N50,000 each. You also need to buy the pipes and each roll cost about N35,000, which for my farm, I am using four rolls."
She said that was why many farmers would rather wait for the rainy season, though it also comes with its own challenges.
"You cannot store the seeds for a year, it will get rotten. So if you decide you want to only farm during the rainy season then you would have to buy potato seeds which may be expensive. But for those of us who take the risk of farming all year round, sometimes we can vegetate the seed from our harvests then mix it up with new varieties," Geoffrey also explained.
Right now, farmers are able to store potatoes for at least six months but they do that with certain chemicals. Magdalene explained that when potatoes are kept on chemically treated bare ground in a storage facility; they could last for up to six months. "There is a worm that may attack the potatoes so there are chemicals we spray on the ground before storing the potatoes. However, the potatoes will shrink a little so if you store 20 bags you may end up getting 18 bags," she said.
The farmers urged that for potatoes farming to boost employment and revenue in Plateau State, government should build dams and provide loans to them. However, for most of the farmers, getting a lasting solution to potato blight and providing improved seeds would ensure better yield.