Potato growing in the province seems to be getting harder, as the experience of James Wray and his father (also James) during the past season proves.
But with firm prices and good working relationships with neighbours prepared to insert the crop into their rotations, the challenge is one they clearly relish.
“The weather windows seem to be getting shorter and are certainly not making things any easier,” says Mr Wray.
After graduating from the Royal Agricultural College in 2001 and travelling the world for a year, Mr Wray returned to the farm to enter into partnership with his father and grandfather, then 103.
“Grandfather was still active on the farm, even then, but has since died.”
The partnership’s operations, including annually rented potato land, extend across 445ha (1100 acres) within a radius of 10 miles from Burnfoot near Dungiven.
Including some recently purchased land they own about 166ha (400 acres) of that.
Cropping on the highly varied soils, ranging from silty clay loam to sand reclaimed from the sea, includes winter wheat, winter barley, spring barley, and for the first time this year 40ha (100 acres) of spring wheat, Belvoir, on the reclaimed land.
“We don’t like having oilseed rape in the rotation as it’s hard to kill in the potatoes and its roots can block the harvester,” says Mr Wray.
“We’ve only had 18 days potato harvesting this season, and we still have about 20 acres in the ground. Last year we didn’t start planting until 17 April, though we like to begin around 1 April.”
For many years the farm had grown about 60ha (150 acres) of potatoes each year, with up to 500 suckler herd cattle the other main enterprise.
But the need for much more manure storage under cross-compliance has led them to reduce the cattle to about 250 and expand the potato side of the business.
Now at about 89ha (220 acres) that area is getting close to the capacity of their existing machinery, Mr Wray believes.
The weather in the area is a key yield driver.
“Last year was ideal for winter wheat and we got up to 10t/ha.” But drought hit spring barley hard, he notes.
“With the potatoes if every field gave 20t/acre I’d be happy.”
This season’s winter wheats are Alchemy and Einstein, the winter barley Pearl and spring barley will be Westminster.
All cereals are sold to a pig producer under a long-standing arrangement that satisfies both parties in terms of assured supplies and acceptable prices.
Most of the potatoes go for processing, but the short growing season and scab risk rule out Maris Piper. So Cabaret is the main alternative along with Navan and Rooster.
Until now they have all been sold on the open market, but Mr Wray is keen to test the contract sales water.
“This year we’ll have 10 acres on contract to Wilson County, the main Tesco supplier. I’m not a gambler and like to know what money’s coming up,” he explains. “In the long run I’d like to be 50:50.”
The farm has a 500t cold store, 3250t of ambient storage plus a 1500t Dutch barn drying system.
All lifting is into 1t boxes, but sales, some of which are to England, are increasingly made through 1t bags to avoid the hassle of box returns.
Ploughing remains the primary cultivation, and Mr Wray, who recently completed a BASIS course, makes 90% of input decision himself and does all the spraying.
He keeps abreast of technical developments mainly through regular meetings of the 30-strong discussion group, Progressive Agricultural Producers, formed in 2003.
He also represents the north-west on the Ulster Farmers Union potatoes board.
Given the catchy weather, flotation tyres on the sprayer and trailers are essential, and to minimise compaction windrowing is now standard practice for potato lifting, he notes.
Looking ahead, he regards the main threat to the business as a shortage of suitable staff.
“It’s impossible to get skilled operators. We used to run nine tractors, and given the haulage distances involved we need that sort of number during potato harvest.
“But now we’re down to five main ones and we increasingly rely on help from other farmers who bring their own machines.”
- 445ha varied soils over 10 miles
- Potatoes + winter and spring cereals
- Weather windows getting tighter
- Skilled staff hard to find