17 April 1997

Belgian grower digs in for spud bonanza

A willingness to work closely

with buyers and exploit

virgin ground has helped one

Belgian grower nearly triple

his potato crop in three

years. Andrew Swallow

visited him to find out how

CONTRACTS with processor FarmFrites are a fundamental part of business for Ronny Poelvoorde, from Dentergem, near Gent, in Belgium.

Growing 430ha (1062 acres) of potatoes in a 125-mile radius, all bar the 6ha (15-acre) base holding is rented. Mr Poelvoorde considers himself a specialist businessman rather than a farmer. "We are more commercial than a farm; everything we do, we have got to make money from it," he stresses.

Part of the strategy is finding fresh land. "Of the 430ha we are renting this year, 350ha has never grown potatoes," says Mr Poelvoorde. Where the crop has been grown, local contractor contacts are used to check how frequently.

This season most of the land has been booked at £600/ha (£243/acre) in deals struck last September. A three-year rolling contract with FarmFrites gives him confidence to do this. "The agreement gives us the security to invest, and FarmFrites gets security of supply." FarmFrites contracts 60-70% of his tonnage, and the rest is sold on the open market either to FarmFrites or local exporters.

Variety, price and tonnage details for the next season are finalised in November.

"We discuss variety closely with FarmFrites, it is a give-and-take process," says Mr Poelvoorde. For example, Russet Burbank has been dropped, because of management difficulties. "It either requires wet ground, or non-stop irrigation. It does not suit our system." Asterix is being grown instead.

Contract tonnage is usually 40t/ha (16t/acre) with a 10% tolerance and prices dependent on delivery date and variety. The contract price is adjusted to a maximum  10% depending on open market price at time of delivery. Maincrop Asterix contracts start at £42/t for September and October deliveries, to £57/t in April 1999.

Velox will be the first variety lifted. "FarmFrites asked us to grow the crop. It is a very early German variety which was grown for starch production. We planted the first 13ha on Mar 26 and hope to be harvesting by July 15. Last year we averaged 55t/ha, but you must not allow this variety to grow too big," he notes.

Half his crop is delivered direct to FarmFrites Oudenhoorn factory near Rotterdam and the rest is put into storage for later delivery. The temperature controlled store is normally clear of his own potatoes by Mar 15, when the grading and loading facilities are used to trade other growers tonnage. "We deliver potatoes to FarmFrites 365 days a year. Half are our own, the rest are business," says Mr Poelvoorde.

Continuity of supply is achieved by matching varieties to soil type and lifting from mid-July through to November.

Grading in the field using a machine Mr Poelvoorde had specially built ensures low outgrades even on direct delivered tonnage. Minimum size is 35-50mm.

Produce in store which fails to meet FarmFrites standards is exported thanks to a bagging machine. "This gives us a market for produce with poor fry-colour, unsuitable dry matter or mis-shapes. Without it we would be selling stock feed which is worth nothing," he notes. In one six-week spell this winter 2000t were bagged and exported to Spain and Portugal.

Over the next three years Mr Poelvoorde plans to increase both his own tonnage and traded volumes. "We want to grow 600ha producing 30,000t, and trade a similar quantity," he says. Exports at present are through a dealer. But in the future he plans to start dealing direct within Europe.

Diversification into other crops is dismissed as a distraction to the core business.

"Potatoes are becoming more and more a speciality. In business you have really got to focus on one thing and for us it is potatoes," he concludes.

Belgian spud ace Ronny Poelvoordes winning formula uses virgin land and close links with buyers – plus a novel growth stimulant to boost marketable yield.

POELVOORDE STRATEGY

&#8226 Potato-only business approach.

&#8226 Close link to buyer.

&#8226 Virgin land rented at £600/ha.

&#8226 Unlimited irrigation licences.

&#8226 40t/ha contract at £42-57/t.

&#8226 Spray spend £335/ha in 1997.