18 July 1998

bowled over by leeks

Mervyn Casey hand pulls potato volunteers in his leek crop.

A specialist Lincolnshire grower teamed up with a supermarket to maintain his income.

A LONG look at his businesss traditional cropping left Mervyn Casey convinced there was only one real solution to maintaining income – intensify into a new crop.

So out went the old system of early potatoes, sugar beet and wheat on 56.7ha (170 acres) of mainly light sandy land at Willow Farm, New York, Lincs.

And in came leeks, chosen largely because they provided continuity of work for the women employed to harvest the potatoes, but also because they are not easy to grow to the high quality standards demanded by multiple retailers. As a result, supply tends to be limited and there is good demand.

The Caseys first crop of 2.4ha (6 acres) in 1991 proved easily good enough for the supermarket trade. Encouraged, they expanded the enterprise rapidly so that this year leeks account for 44.5ha (110 acres).

This move has meant growing more than half the crop on annually-rented land within about four miles of Willow Farm to ensure that disease and pest problems do not build up there. Under Tescos Natures Choice protocol, leeks must not be grown more than one year in four on the same land.

Tesco always took much of the crop, initially through the co-operative and then via packers. In 1996, the Caseys decided to supply direct and consign 100% of their entire crop to the multiple. This meant a £115,000 investment in a packhouse, cold store and improved computer technology.

"Financially were better off supplying Tesco direct and have a lot more control over fulfilling orders," asserts Mr Casey.

The Caseys start the season with Carlton although this year they are trying a small area of the new, slightly earlier and as yet unnamed hybrid, 6524, which in trials has looked slightly better than Carlton. The mid-season ones they grow include Upton, Parton and Stanton. All come from the only hybrid leek breeder, Nunhem.

Drilling, in 50cm rows with a Stanhay Singulaire 785, begins in late February and finishes around mid-May.

The leeks slow emergence, usually about three weeks, and poor vigour makes them very susceptible to weed competition. They are grown in widely spaced rows rather than beds to facilitate weed control by non-chemical means.

Harvesting with a much modified De Wulf single-row machine starts around mid-July in the planted, fleeced crop. At the packhouse, leeks are washed, trimmed, graded and placed in polythene-lined 20lb returnable plastic trays.

"We have four or five trimmers for each packer compared with the usual three-to-one ratio," explains Mr Casey. "That increases our packhouse costs but we think its necessary to achieve a top quality end product. We still get the same price as other suppliers, though."

&#8226 VEGEX 98, the biggest vegetable exhibition in Europe, will be staged by ADAS on 16-17 September at the ADAS Siltland Centre, Fosdyke, near Boston, Lincs.