31 July 1998

Earliness is profit in crisping trade

POTATO lifting has barely started in the west midlands, but for one grower early processing contracts have become a speciality. Price and spread workload compensate for lower yields.

"Really we are murdering the crop, lifting so early," says Phillip Ward of High Hatton Hall near Hodnet, Shrops. "But we go for the very early market because there is a bit of premium."

Contracts with merchant, Greenvale, are agreed on a sliding scale of prices, starting on June 24. Mr Ward starts lifting as soon as quantity and quality criteria are met, normally around July 13. However this year lifting started a week late, on July 20.

"We had a couple of false starts due to DM and fry colour not being right," he explains.

Lack of sunshine is blamed for the slow increase in dry matter content, which has to be above 20% for contracts. "It really needs one dry, sunny week. The dry matters are still a bit low."

The variety Record has been the mainstay of early processing crops at High Hatton for 15 years but this year new variety Karlena was grown on a 200t trial contract.

"It is meant to be an earlier alternative to Record," says Mr Ward. "It certainly bulks quicker and is probably a week earlier, but the fry colours were not right until the same time as Record."

This has allowed the crop to grow too big and more tubers are going over the 80mm riddle than Mr Ward would like.

"Perhaps it is more suited to the chip trade. If we grow it again we shall plant it more densely," he adds.

Yields are up on average this year, with Karlena doing 43t/ha (17.5t/acre) graded and Record 38t/ha (15.5t/acre). Record is also producing 3.7t/ha (1.5t/acre) of sub 40mm tubers, which will be sold for processing at a later date by Greenvale.

The biggest headache for Mr Ward has been fry colour, graded from A, the lightest, to E, the darkest with premium crisp manufacturers accepting only grades A and B now he says.

There is little he can do to control this, but calcium applied on the ridges at planting time is aimed to prevent discolouration due to internal rust spots.

Despite early lifting, potato cyst nematode numbers have increased in recent years. So the rotation has been extended from one-in-three to one-in-five years, consequently reducing the spud acreage from 57ha (140 acres) to 36ha (90 acres).

Lifting early also spreads workload on the farm. Spuds in the morning dovetail with barley in the afternoon, clearing the crop before the wheat harvest starts. This makes an early entry into winter barley possible, concludes Mr Ward.

Potato harvesting under way in Shropshire…yields are up , but dry matter and fry colour have been slow to come right, says processing grower Peter Ward. New variety Karlena (inset) is out-performing Record, on yield at least, according to early indications.