Wednesday, 23 December 2015 07:55

From infant powder to spuds

Written by  Pam Tipa
New Potatoes NZ chief executive Chris Claridge. New Potatoes NZ chief executive Chris Claridge.

Chris Claridge loves his potatoes.

Potatoes NZ's new chief executive of just a few weeks holds duel Irish and New Zealand citizenship.

And he definitely feels an affinity with his new industry after moving over into the position from recent dairy industry involvement.

The potato industry is in good shape, Claridge told Rural News.

"It's a very cohesive industry; it has a clear strategic plan of what it wants to achieve over the next 10 years."

With about 170 growers to represent, Claridge says the first 100 days in the chief executive seat will be spent meeting and listening to growers, meeting processors and exporters, and understanding the industry.

He needs to learn about how the potato association can add value to growers and help achieve the strategic objectives of the organisation.

"There is a clear goal to improve exports," he says. "There are three key goals: to increase the profitability per hectare for the growers, to double the value of fresh and processed exports in the next 10 years, and to enhance the value of the domestic market by 15% by 2025."

The industry has an innovation group to look at what value add could do for growers. "There are opportunities to look at other markets for processed potatoes, and to look at innovative opportunities for potatoes," he says.

A project is planned with Plant and Food looking at adding value and downstream products from potatoes.

However, Claridge said while talking to Rural News that he was yet to catch up with the full innovation programme – next on his to-do list. He is aware of one innovative project looking at using potato flour and potato protein. He says there is increasing recognition of gluten intolerance. "I am gluten intolerant myself so I am well suited to potatoes." That along with his Irish citizenship, he jokes.

"There are big opportunities in downstream processing of either waste streams or value added," he says.

"It's a big crop of 500,000 tonnes of product so there are a lot of opportunities, a lot of scope for what can be done over time. Meanwhile ensuring increased yields and profitability for the growers is a prime concern. "Adding value is good so long as that added value is returned to the farmers."

The bulk of processed exports are frozen potatoes, mainly fries, to Australia and South East Asian markets such as Japan and Thailand, a small amount to China, and to French Polynesia.

$60m exports have gone out this year to the end of October, mostly to Australia but also to 27 other countries. Total exports in 2014 were worth $101m. "That's a good range of countries we are exporting to and the dollar positioning is good."

Fresh exports will be about $24m to the end of December. Most of that goes to Fiji because there are barriers to fresh exports into other countries for phytosanitary reasons, Claridge says.

They have just opened up Vietnam and are working with MPI and Vietnamese authorities to get fresh potatoes into that market which is exciting. There is a growing demand in South East Asia for potato products.

There are no drought concerns at present. The nor'wester is starting to blow in Canterbury, but the irrigation is turned on and there is no shortage of supply. Pukekohe and Manawatu are not affected by dry at this stage.

"There's no risk to having new potatoes for Christmas, which is the most important thing," he says.


A well-rounded Candidate

Potatoes NZ chairman Stuart Wright says Claridge brings a wealth of horticultural, business, leadership and marketing experience to the role.

"That will prove invaluable in building on the very good work already done towards achieving our goals of boosting productivity in the sector for the benefit of growers and the New Zealand economy."

Claridge studied horticulture at Lincoln University before gaining a masters in biotechnology at the University of Canterbury

He founded one of NZ's first organic food exporting businesses and led the Carrickmore dairy export company, developing extensive links in China.

He also helped establish the New Zealand Infant Formula Exporters Association and is a member of the Royal Society and the New Zealand Institute of Food Science and Technology.

"Horticulture particularly, and the application of technology to biological systems, has been an enduring passion for me so I'm very pleased to step up to the challenge of lifting performance in the NZ potato sector," Claridge says.

"Potatoes are the third most-important crop in the world after rice and wheat and there is great potential to add value."

Claridge is also a former dean of business studies and senior lecturer in management at the Christchurch College of Education, has worked as a business advisor for Canterbury Employers Chamber of Commerce, and for 11 years ran his own agency specialising in marketing communications.


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