McCain Foods, the Canada-based potato-products group, has stepped in to try to support UK farmers, hit in recent years by volatile weather and now, due to Covid-19, uncertain demand.

The privately-owned group, which reportedly buys around 15% of the UK’s annual potato crop, is to spend GBP25m over the next five years on measures including grants for farmers to invest in harvesting capacity.

Some 40% of the funds will be put forward this year. McCain said the closure of foodservice outlets under the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown measures had led to “a backlog of potatoes that cannot be used”.

Daniel Metheringham, director of agriculture within McCain’s operations in the UK and Ireland, said: “The last two years have seen two of the worst potato crops in the last 40 years and this paired with the impact of Covid-19 has left our growers with a number of challenges including bad crops and surplus potatoes. McCain growers saw an average 18% reduction in yield in 2018 and 16% of our 2019 storage crop was still left in field. This pledge is about doing all we can to help our growers.”

McCain has also set up a three- to five-year “loyalty scheme rewarding farmers who continue to grow”. The french fry major will also look to “optimise” its contracts by, for example, “improving prices on early season varieties so farmers get fair prices”.

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Asked by just-food what internal factors at McCain prompted the launch of the pledge, Metheringham said: “Potatoes are at the heart of what we do and our farmers are crucial to that, they are a natural extension of our business and we wouldn’t be McCain without them, some of whom we’ve had relationships with for three generations. We’ve seen first-hand the impact of the last two years in which potato farmers experienced the worst potato crops in the last 40 years due to exceptional weather conditions. This resulted in our farmers seeing an average 18% reduction in yield in 2018 and in 2019, 16% of our crop remained in the ground. The impact of climatic changes is only set to continue and we wanted to ensure we were taking proactive steps to support our loyal farmers which is why the pledge was created.”