“By growing our own mother plants, we can keep our entire chain free of viruses.”

Ireland is famous as the land of the potato, and nowadays too, much of the sweet potato eaten in Europe has Irish roots. From the greenhouse and breeding laboratory, Biotanics creates plant material that is used in its sweet potato propagation company in Portugal. “By growing our own mother plants, we can keep our entire chain virus-free,” says CEO Patrick Fitzgerald.

Seventy years ago, paprika was introduced in Western Europe. Thirty years ago, I got into the avocado. And just 15 years ago, the Biotanics team started selling sweet potato plants in Europe. Their family farm originally specialized in mixed farming, but following his interests in alternative crops, Patrick began to focus more on plant-based specialties. “We started selling sweet potato plants in 2006,” says Patrick. “As far as I know, no one was selling sweet potato plugs at the time.” The growers chose to collaborate with the Louisiana State University AgCenter, experts in the sweet potato field. They also grow and sell their own licensed varieties.

market growth
The market has been growing since Biotanics started—and so has the company, and not just within state borders. Since it became too expensive to grow sweet potato plugs in Ireland, Nativaland was created: a Portuguese joint venture specializing in plug propagation. “In terms of energy, Portugal is the better option, but Ireland has a great climate for clean starting materials. There are no whiteflies, and pest control is much better than in Europe.” Every year the company tests a new material from the University of Louisiana. In their Irish tissue culture lab, they multiply them and send the plants’ roots to Portugal, a strategy they’ve already developed for the small tuber market. “This way, we know they can start with the cleanest material possible.”

According to Patrick, this is of great importance because the sweet potato is a specialized crop, relatively unknown in Europe, dealing with an entirely different set of diseases and threats. “Sweet potatoes have been here for more than 400 years but they weren’t agronomists until a few years ago. There are no regulations in place, and there is a high risk of diseases threatening the crop. It is currently unprotected. In the future, we hope that potato regulations will be adapted to the industry Sweet potatoes too since it is a very convenient solution and it will protect the industry, but apart from that, we have to keep our raw materials safe anyway.”

farm upgrade
The farm in Ireland is perfectly adapted to do just that. Recent updates include a new greenhouse and a complete modernization of the 15-year-old facility. Ebb and flow floors, bug screens, full water circulation – it’s all there. Working with HortOS and Mienis water solution enables the company to work without offloading anything.

Patrick explains how sustainability is an important word in the company. “We have always been and continue to live on our farm, which is why we want to be as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible. We don’t want to spread pathogens. We don’t have fertilizer going into the ground. Everything is recycled.” LED lights were also installed to reach their targets. “Our previous sodium lighting cost much more to run. We switched to LED last year—an investment that came just in time for the energy crisis—and now there is only a small percentage of sodium lamps left, which we use in our R&D hotspots.”

With these investments, Biotanics is pre-screening a growing market, though it makes clear it’s not an elevator, it’s stairs. “There has been significant growth, so we expect the market to remain at the same level for several years and then pick up again.” It is estimated that the sweet potato industry will need another ten years to mature in cultivation. The processed market will show more growth than the fresh market. From a five-year perspective, I expect to see continued growth in agricultural production of sweet potatoes, but where it will end up in the supply chain is not clear.

Pictures Nativaland, where young plants are propagated

Agriculture Psychology
His upbringing in the industry taught him all about the psychology of farming—something that’s happened since Tulipmania many centuries ago. The sweet potato industry has also seen people come in hoping to get rich quickly, but according to Patrick, it doesn’t work that way. “It’s often ‘boost and boom’: it explodes and becomes too much after that. We choose stable growth: not too big, not too slow, and we keep our focus on quality by working with partners like Louisiana State University. I don’t know if we’re on it.” Right or wrong, and being passionate about the product also means having to be careful not to be Mr. Know-it-all, but I have a lot of faith in sweet potatoes as a European crop. I think it’s good for the diet and it’s here to stay.”

contaminated plant matter
“Our varieties are resistant to specific sweet potato diseases and pests, and we guarantee they are free of viruses, which can pose a serious threat to the crop.” Some viruses result in 40 percent smaller harvests. In the United States, especially, this is something farmers have been struggling with for many years. “We have a lab in Ireland where we follow the US Phytosanitary Guidelines, which means we specifically test for sweet potato viruses. Contamination in plant material is one of the biggest challenges in European production, and more needs to be done to protect crop health.”

for more information:
Patrick Fitzgerald
Botany – Fitzgerald Nurseries
Phone: +353 (0) 56 7728418
Fax: +353 (0) 56 7728481
[email protected]

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