Cyprus potatoes are the island’s leading agricultural export with figures on the rise after a decade in the doldrums.
However, producers fear that the future of the sector is looking blurry as chronic problems such as drought are compounded by EU regulations which is putting a further strain on them.
Growers demand exemptions from some EU regulations, which would allow the state to sponsor their exports and cover possible damages caused by adverse weather conditions.
Potato exports saw a small increase of 1.8% last year – with 108,782 tonnes exported abroad – the first since 2008.
Agricultural produce brought in EUR 330 mln out of the total of EUR 1.24 bln generated from exports of domestic produce in 2017, with potatoes being the prominent product yielding EUR 47.7 mln, from 47.1 mln the year before.
Produce Inspection Officer of the Ministry of Agriculture said potatoes are Cyprus’ most important agricultural export and that the ministry is working hard to contribute towards improving the numbers.
Producers, however, fear that the future may not be as bright as it may seem at first glance.
Charalambos Anastasiou, the General manager of the Pancyprian Team of Potato Producers (POP), a company set up by farmers to promote potato exports, said that 2017 was a good year for them, while 2018 seems to more promising year.
“While the season begins in early November till mid-June, we have harvested and exported our produce by the end of May, leaving nothing to rot in our warehouses like previous years,” Anastatsiou told the Financial Mirror.
The head of POP explained that the fact that the season had ended prematurely, and potatoes were harvested 3-4 weeks earlier due to the temperature rise and prolonged sunlight periods, gave Cypriot farmers an edge over their competitors.
Cyprus potatoes were harvested almost a month in advance in combination with the fact that potatoes in Europe were picked later than expected due to weather conditions prevailing in mainland Europe.
“This allowed us to reach the European markets which had almost no potato reserves, before our competitors,” said Anastasiou.
However, the extremely hot weather has also taken its toll on this year’s crop.
Farmer organisations have complained that weather conditions prevailing in Cyprus have led to the loss of an estimated 30% of their crops.
Anastasiou, acknowledging that the 2017 increase in exports may have been a stroke of luck, said that POP also fears that farmers are in for a bumpy ride.
Although potato producers were able to sell off their produce, they are not satisfied with the income they received.
“Prices are being pushed down by new competition from countries like Israel. Our neighbours, whereas up until a few years ago they exported up to 20,000 tonnes of potatoes to Europe, Israel is now exporting close to 700,000 tonnes.
Despite prices remaining stable, farmers are hit by significant increases in production such as the cost of fertilizer, which has risen by 300% since the beginning of the decade, while costs of pesticides and water have also risen significantly.
Growers are no longer eligible to receive state aid as the European Union put a stop to any state aid given directly to farmers unless it’s for development.
“Development plans would mean the financing of new machinery, the introduction of modern technology in farms, but not in the form of compensation or monitoring prices,” said Anastasiou.
“Prices have remained more or less the same since the time of my grandfather”.
Anastasiou said that the government could help farmers through tax relaxations. He said that one of the things putting a strain on farmers is directives drawn up by the European Commission, within the framework of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP).
“While drawing up directives, the European Commission does not take into account each member state’s specificities, which means for example that we do not get state compensations for droughts. The EU has also forbidden certain pesticides for pests which are not present in mainland Europe but are in Cyprus,” said Anastasiou.
“We would like to see the sate taking measures to promote exemptions to some directives issued by the European bodies, by invoking Cyprus specificities which arise from the different weather conditions”.
Farmer organisations are also concerned over the future of the Cypriot potato and in turn their livelihood. Organisations Panagrotikos, EKA and Nea Agrotiki all expressed concern about restrictions enforced by the European Union on state aid towards farmers.
Tasos Yapanis, the General Secretary of DISY affiliated Panagrotikos, said that the European directives prohibit member states from sponsoring agricultural produce.
“The measures are completely within the spirit of the EU; however, we feel that the EU does not take into consideration that we are an island and we can only