The humble potato is the backbone of the British diet: whether mashed, boiled or chipped we cant get enough of it. Kathy Bowry visited a potato farm in Nottinghamshire and discovered that spuds have to be grown in a sustainable manner or the industry will have had its chips, literally.
We Brits get through an incredible amount of potatoes. According to the Potato Council we pack away more than six million tonnes a year. In foodservice a great deal of this consumption is accounted for by chip sales; out of home chips amount to 83 per cent of potato menu choices. One out of every four British potatoes is made into chips thats approximately 1.5 million tonnes every year and, another mind blowing statistic, it would take an area the size of 56,000 Wembley Stadium football pitches to grow all the potatoes needed for the chips consumed in Great Britain each year.
In order to feed this seemingly insatiable appetite, many foodservice manufacturers import their potato products from the Continent, notably Belgium and Holland, but one of the giant foodservice suppliers has now set up a sustainable totally British operation.
Three years ago Lamb Weston bought a plant at Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, so it could process local potatoes for its new Britains Pride brand. Britains Pride chips and roast potatoes are made using only British potatoes, grown by selected British farmers on British soil and are cut, blanched and pre-fried at Wisbech. The brand was developed with an eye to establishments where customers demand local British food and contract caterers who are bound by their customers CSR policy. Britains Pride, which sports a Union Jack and the Red Tractor logo on the packaging, is also supplied to the MoD and is shipped out to Afghanistan for the troops to enjoy a taste of home.
One of the companys major contract growers is John Burnett who farms 500 acres in Nottinghamshire. Our year runs from July to June. We harvest from July to October; some of the harvest is used straight away and some is stored. November to June the crop is in store where it is monitored every two weeks, says Burnett. All my potatoes go to Wisbech as I am pre-contracted to grow for Lamb Weston. I work closely with John Pettinger who is the Raw Product Supply Manager.
For Britains Pride we use three similar varieties of potato bred for their taste if we stuck to one, the quality would decline over the season, says Pettinger. That way we can produce a consistent brand. We use Fontaine, Maris Piper and Innovator. The potatoes are bred to Lamb Weston specifications for consistency and quality and the factory performs best with these varieties: they are what our customers want, says Pettinger.
We use 99 per cent of the potato in one way, shape or form. Anything that doesnt get used as chips, wedges, slices or roast potatoes is used to make potato flakes, he says.
Because we only get 14-15 inches of rain here, as we are in the shadow of the Pennines, we have the ideal conditions for growing the type of potatoes with a low water content that John needs for processing for chips and roast potatoes, says Burnett.
Potatoes for the 2010-2011 crop were going in during March and outloading of the 2009 crop to the factory at the same time. We farm 500-600 acres depending on year and crop rotation.
This gives us 3,000 tonnes off the field and 8,000 tonnes out of store, so 11,000 tonnes per annum goes from us to Wisbech, he says.
The Wisbech factory only processes UK grown potatoes regardless of variety. Fifty per cent of them are from the immediate area so transport miles are not excessive. All are grown to Assured Produce standards and all legislation is adhered to rigidly. We comply with good agricultural practice and we are constantly audited. The auditors turn up and they spend two solid days here and look round everything, says Burnett. We have certificates for TASCC, Assured Produce and Assured Crops.
Britains Pride uses 30 other growers across the UK. Potato growing counties are Shropshire, Hereford, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and a bit of Suffolk. To supply the factory all year round you need different variants from different areas to spread the risk. Britains Pride uses only one variety at any one time and they are always yellow fleshed varieties. From 40mm up as big as you can get, says Pettinger. We can make specific product. If a customer wants a certain size of chip we can accommodate them. Caterers like to be able to control portions so bigger chips are better. Smaller chips mean more volume (bigger chips fall off the scoop making for good portion control!).
It seems growing potatoes is no sinecure. Potatoes are a variable crop and every year there is a problem. Depending on the weather and climate they can either be too big or too small, colour can be different you cannot take anything for granted as every season is different. Say you harvest a nice crop and you are satisfied with it. That is only the beginning, because you have to store it and again there are variables to deal with. If the store is too warm the colour improves but the crop can start sprouting. It is a very challenging crop, says Burnett. But never mind, I love growing potatoes or I wouldnt be doing it after all this time.
Crop rotation is the only way to grow potatoes, says Burnett. Father did it and I do it and I want to carry on for my son. Twenty years ago we used to rotate one year in four now it is one in seven and plant those fields with wheat, barley and oilseed rape. Potatoes are more profitable and for that reason I would love to do more but cost would go up and yield goes down if you over-plant the land. After three rotations you would have to come out for 10 years. If I want to live off the land and my son after me I have to be sustainable it is not an option.
When planting and harvesting, obviously machinery is used: we try to be as efficient as possible. First we go along and lift the stones and put them deeper, plant potatoes, fertilise and were off. It is all done in one operation. Luckily in that sense potatoes are a relatively efficient crop compared to cereals, but it is all about management, he says.
Potatoes and the Future
According to Mike Storey, head of research at the Potato Council, The Government is looking to increase production and the industry can certainly do that but demand has to be there. Before that can happen a far better recognition of the dietary benefits of potatoes is needed. Potatoes are particularly well suited for sustainable farming as they produce more calories per cubic metre of water than many other crops, such as wheat for instance, and with water being such a crucial element, that is a significant benefit.
Pesticides to maintain national production are safe and effective and are carefully controlled and regulated by independent government authorities and audited by the Assured Produce scheme. However the EU has carried out a review of pesticides that will be allowable in the future. This throws out crucial challenges concerning pesticides available for potato farmers to
control aphid virus, funguses, cyst nematodes, slugs, blight and weed control during rotation.
The Potato Council is now funding research projects to address and identify activities across these key groups that could compromise production. We need to develop a strategy to ensure the industry has the tools for the future to ensure sustainability and we will be making sure knowledge transfer promotes best practice information about integrated use of pesticides.
It is important that growers can continue to deliver into foodservice and fresh markets in a sustainable manner, says Store