potato harvester© Tim Scrivener

On the wall in my office I have a number of certificates which my great grandfather, Will Naylor, won for exhibiting potatoes. My favourite is the The Potato Show Committee Gold Medal for “The Champion Dish of Potatoes.” This was awarded at the Holland County Potato Show in 1933.

The certificate is embossed with gold and was presented with an engraved gold medal that has a colourful hand-painted image of potatoes upon it. These artefacts are so elaborate in appearance that they could be mistaken for treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamun.

When I find myself struggling in the midst of a difficult potato harvest, when the financial tide is a long way from our shore, when my boots are caked in mud and my hands are blackened with grease in sprocket-shaped patterns, I summon thoughts of my forefathers with their champion dishes of potatoes and it dawns on me how little the Naylor family have moved on in the last century.

It was quite something to be a man of potatoes between the wars. The standing of the potato grower in society has diminished somewhat since those glory days. Can you imagine anyone being given a gold medal for growing potatoes now?

The system for motivating potato growers has long since moved from pats on the back to slaps around the head. Perhaps, next to the 1933 award, I should display a framed rejection note and an invoice for return haulage from 2014, to demonstrate the changing times.

Matthew is the managing director of Naylor Flowers Ltd, a South Lincolnshire business which grows cut flowers and potatoes for supermarkets. Matthew is a Nuffield Scholar

The most stunning aspect for me is the concept of a “Potato Show Committee.” Even with the grizzly prospect of darker nights and the pitiful offerings of the winter television schedule, would anyone of my generation donate their free time to sit in a room to discuss dishes of potatoes?

Where once it was a point of honour to grow an outstanding sample, nowadays to grow a poor one is an act which brings scorn and financial punishment.

Year 2015 will be notable as a blissfully straightforward potato season here. The work was completed quickly in good conditions, the yields were above average and the present demand leads me to anticipate a profitable year.

We had a few breakdowns, but with the staggering number of electric motors, pumps, valves, chains, switches, bearings and rams which we employ in the process, it would be miraculous to complete a season without a single stoppage.

Such breakdowns lead me to ponder whether we are guilty of unnecessarily over-complicating our task. The growing size, weight and cost of modern self-propelled potato harvesters fills me with gloom. They look less like a farming tool than a bewildered elephant trying to find its way back to the Serengeti.

As the machinery grows, farmer numbers fall. Very few of the 60,000 new entrants that the farming industry is claimed to need are required in the potato sector. Grower numbers have fallen smoothly from almost 80,000 in 1960 to little more than 2,000 today. Further extrapolation of that graph suggests that there may be just 500 growers remaining in a decade’s time. One wonders how large, expensive and ugly the machines will be by then.

I like growing potatoes and wonder how best to avoid being a butterfly on the wheel of progress. I hope, through judicious specialisation, collaboration and investment, that I have got at least one new potato harvester left in me. I have a particular determination to celebrate the 100th anniversary of that certificate.


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