Aberdeenshire potato grower Philip Benzie has increased his spud area 15-fold after a heavy investment and links to end-user Albert Bartlett.
This rapid expansion has seen his potato area in north-east Scotland rise sharply over the past 15 years to 600ha from 40ha.
Mr Benzie has spent heavily on grading, packing and storage facilities for both his potato and carrot crops and has push his workforce to 70 full-time staff.
“We have a long-standing relationship with Albert Bartlett, based on trust. There are no contracts – everything is agreed on a handshake.”
The family farms nearly 1,500ha within a 60-mile radius of its Gairnieston Farm base, near Turriff, with a proportion of the potato output destined for Albert Bartlett.
“We have a long-standing relationship with Albert Bartlett, based on trust. There are no contracts – everything is agreed on a handshake,” explains Mr Benzie.
The Benzie family is now a sizeable grower of Rooster potatoes, the only brand to benefit from a national TV advertising campaign, and is also involved in producing Scotty brand carrots for the company.
Of the 14 potato varieties grown most are for premium markets. “Currently, we’ve got salad, ware and organic potatoes in the ground. Irrigation is used where necessary,” Mr Benzie says.
Carrots are grown across 140ha, having expanded from 20ha in the past seven years by working as a satellite backup for Yorkshire grower and 2012 Farmers Weekly Farmer of the Year Guy Poskitt.
“We work together to produce Scottish carrots for Asda, which means supplying them year round,” explains Mr Benzie.
Three carrot varieties feature in the enterprise – Nairobi, Eskimo and Newark. The first sowings take place in late February, with these early-sown crops being covered in polythene for much of the growing season, before being lifted in July.
The remaining maincrop carrots are sown in April, as conditions warm up, and are covered with straw in October. “They stay like that until we need to lift them,” he says.
Some 645ha of winter and spring cereal crops are grown, providing the break crops for the vegetable-dominated rotation.
“The other reason for growing cereals is that while the grain has a value, the straw that’s produced is essential for our operation. We use up to 40 Hesston bales/acre on the carrots,” he says.
Winter wheat is grown for feed, spring barley for malting and spring oats for milling.
“The straw that comes off the carrots is chopped and incorporated back into the soil, before the cereal crops are drilled,” he explains.
A lot of the same machinery is used to lift both the potatoes and the carrots, bringing cost-sharing benefits.
An approach from Mr Poskitt in 2007 prompted the Benzie family to invest £1.8m in a carrot packing facility, allowing the business to supply Asda and other retailers.
In 2011, a 6,000t cold store for potatoes was built, and in 2012 a potato chitting facility was established.
Potatoes in Scotland
About 40,000ha of potatoes are grown in Scotland, of which 28,000ha are destined for the table, says Stuart Wale, potato expert at the Scotland’s Rural College.
Mainly produced on the east side of the country, the potatoes benefit from the long day length in the summer.
“There are plenty of challenges for growers, but high yields are very possible. Moisture is rarely limiting,” he says.
Production costs are about £6,000/ha and late blight is a particular issue – last year was bad for the disease, says Dr Wale.
Despite the number of Scottish potato growers falling to about 240, the crop is responsible for 8-10% of Scotland’s agricultural turnover at the farmgate.
“We start chitting six weeks before planting in February. It’s a short growing season in north-east Scotland,” he says.
Some 22,000t of potatoes are stored, meaning that part of this requirement has to be outsourced. “Another 6,000t store is planned for the farm,” adds Mr Benzie.
The Bartlett family set up its first company processing beetroot more than 60 years ago with just an old water boiler and a cast-iron bath.
But today, one in every five fresh potatoes consumed in the UK is supplied by the group.
The UK business works with a dedicated group of 96 growers from Cornwall to Inverness, says sales and marketing director John Heginbottom, and it tries to take all of each farm’s production.
“We handle more than 300,000t of fresh potatoes every year, with a particular focus on special and branded varieties,” he says.
A £140m investment in the past 10 years has allowed this to happen.
“We’ve developed our Airdrie site and we have also expanded into the Netherlands, France and the USA. A joint venture business in the Middle East is our next step, followed by the development of a frozen and processing plant in the UK by 2017,” he adds.
The company has exclusive growing and commercial rights for the red-skinned variety Rooster, which was first launched in 2003, following success in Ireland.
With two chef ambassadors and a national TV advertising campaign to support the brand, sales of Rooster potatoes have increased significantly.
Other premium varieties supplied by the group include Vivaldi and Anya for Sainsbury’s, Marabel for Asda, Elfe for Tesco and Pink Gypsy for the Co-op.
In addition, the famous Jersey Royal brand is also handled by the company, which has invested in a state-of-the-art packhouse just outside St Helier on Jersey, in order to work with the 11 growers involved.
Variety development work is ongoing, with trials sites across the UK, says Mr Heginbottom.
“We have up to 200 varieties in our trials programme, which will help to identify future branded varieties,” he says.