Patat Inc.

The potato cannot be burned from the news.

This week it turned out that Belgian growers are settling in northern France because the Belgian area is almost exhausted. In recent times there has been regular squabbling about the planned mega-investment of at least 300 million euros from Clarebout Potatoes in West Flanders in a new factory in Frameries in Hainaut.

The common thread through all that news? The Belgian potato processing industry is bursting at the seams and is performing better than ever, illustrating figures from Belgapom, the professional association of the potato industry, and the trade journal World Potato Markets.

Last year our potato industry processed a record 5.2 million tonnes of potatoes, an increase of 11.6 percent compared to 2017. This increase was the strongest ever on an annual basis since the 90s. To illustrate the steep flight of the sector: in 1990 barely 500,000 tons of potatoes were processed into French fries, puree products, chips or flakes and granulates.

To be able to continue strong growth, employment in the potato industry increased to 4,762 employees last year, or 8 percent more than in 2017.

Although the number of processing facilities remained unchanged at 18, the sector broke another record with 201 million euros in investments in 2018. A year earlier that was 305 million euros.

For years, Export has been putting a turbo on the Belgian potato processing industry, which, according to Belgapom, accounts for an annual turnover of around 2 billion euros. 90 percent of all processed products - French fries, chips, croquettes, flakes and granules - find their way to more than 150 countries. Belgium has long been the world's largest exporter of frozen fries. Last year it amounted to 2.5 million tonnes, or 13.7 percent more than in 2017.

Remarkably, the share of non-European countries is growing the most and already accounts for one third of total exports. In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, they love Belgian frozen French fries, just like the growing middle class in Asia and South America.

In Mexico, traditionally oriented to North America, Belgium is already the third largest importer of frozen fries. Last year, exports to the country increased by 282 percent to 10,000 tons.

At the bottom of the ladder the price varies per tonne that the more than 5,000 Belgian farmers can put into their pockets. About 70 percent of the potatoes are grown on a contract basis, which offers the benefit of the security, according to Belgapom. That price now varies between 100 and 140 euros per tonne.

But a farmer can also opt for the volatile (and therefore potentially more lucrative) free market. This potato season - from September 2018 to June 2019 - that price fluctuated around 300 to 320 euros per tonne because the supply was poor after a poor harvest.

Last season, the farmer barely got 25 euros per ton on the same free market, because there was a much larger supply then. Or how ever Patat Inc. inexorably surf the whims of the weather.