20 February 1998

Cornish tradition under threat

THE next expert to recommend that early potato growers in west Cornwall co-operate and produce what the supermarkets want risks his life. Even the toughest has reached breaking point after two years of losses, despite improving quality and availability.

"At stake is the survival of the traditional family farm in west Cornwall," says Paul Badcock of Wheal Prosper, Plain an Gwarry, near Marazion. "These small farms have survived only because they double-cropped broccoli and potatoes. Now neither crop can be relied on to make money."

Mr Badcock emerged last year as one of the leaders of a group of younger growers determined to get their produce on supermarket shelves despite unfair competition.

Supermarkets had agreed to take their early potatoes early in the season, but only Tesco kept its promise. The others continued with imported Jersey Royals into June. By then the Cornish crop had bulked up, making selling them even more difficult.

Mr Badcock and colleagues are convinced Jersey growers get government help with a massive promotion budget and that they buy supermarket shelf space for their potatoes.

So, last June west Cornwall growers took to the streets of Truro to give away potatoes and asked shoppers to sign petitions asking for Cornish potatoes in the supermarkets.

Since then they have had talks with supermarket buyers. And British Potato Council chairman David Walker has talked to supermarkets on behalf of early growers.

Neil Care, from St Buryan, was a founder member of the Landsend Potatoes co-op which operated a pack house on chairman William Thomass farm and sold to several supermarkets. But two decided to take only produce packed on a non-farm site. So Landsend Potatoes joined other groups to form Cornish Potatoes Ludgvan, and invested in new premises at the Univeg site at Ludgvan.

The co-op, which received Objective 5B money, marketed under the new brand Cornish King. "We grew the varieties supermarkets said they preferred, we had the volume by mid-May, but still they didnt take them. 70% had to go on the wholesale market and so that was ruined as well. Ive seen 30 years of potato growing but Ive never had losses like weve had these past two years," says Mr Care.

Unreasonable costs increasingly burden the sector. Some supermarkets wont take supplies from the same pack house as a rival supermarket. Growers plant the varieties supermarkets say they want and then they change the list. Seed companies charge extra high prices for supermarket-preferred varieties, or big royalties if growers try to get seed multiplied themselves.

Co-ops are the only way growers can get the scale needed to deal with supermarkets, says Mr Care. "Its a pity the Cornish crop doesnt go through one co-op and one pack house."

Mr Care and Mr Badcock are also involved with contracts for other potatoes such as crispers and bakers. Things are no better there, they say. The contracts are not worth the paper on which they are written.

If the buyers dont want the potatoes they dont take them. Crispers had offered £15/t less than last year, says Mr Badcock. From next year they would have to wash the potatoes before loading them but would get no extra money for doing it. The washer and equipment for rear-loading of chilled lorries cost about £50,000, said Mr Care.

Growers united for profit: Neil Care, Paul Badcock and Hugh Dawson.

Growers united for profit: Neil Care, Paul Badcock and Hugh Dawson.

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