By Charles Abel
SIXTH biggest supermarket Waitrose has launched the first of a series of arable demonstration farms in a bid to encourage other suppliers to cut input use.
Robert Smiths 400ha (1000 acre) of light chalk at College Farm, Duxford, Cambs, grows potatoes, parsnips and onions for Waitrose and other supermarkets, plus cereals, rape and beet.
"We want to offer consumers produce grown with less inputs and we want to convince farmers they can do that," explains Steve Esom, buying director for Waitrose. Cuts in N rates and no nematicides or OP insecticides on College Farm potatoes show that is possible.
Avoiding unnecessary inputs is a key Waitrose goal. "If fresh produce carried a label listing all its constituents, consumers would ask what some of these inputs are doing there. So, if it doesnt have to be there lets take it out."
The drive to reduce input use below what is accepted under the Assured Produce does not undermine the national scheme, stresses Mr Esom.
"We want a foundation, with independent verification, common to all retailers. We can then have additional protocols on top of that to differentiate ourselves. But at least we have a common bedrock of assurance."
Although only sixth biggest supermarket with 2% market share by value, Waitrose claims a 5-6% share of fresh produce sales. Of that organic represents 7%, well ahead of the industry average of 1-2%. "We believe that can grow quite comfortably to 14-15% in 18 months," says Mr Esom.
Existing suppliers are being urged to convert, with guarantees to buy all organic produce and technical and marketing support during conversion, explains Waitrose agronomist, Alan Wilson. By 2000 College Farm will be growing 10ha (25 acres) or organic potatoes.
Demo farm host Robert Smith, who is also chairman of Sutton Bridge potato packers, pays tribute to Waitroses detailed technical support. "Their standards are stricter than most – such as a one-in-six potato rotation. But they go out of their way to build up a relationship and get to know the crop. Everything is done on a practical basis of what is possible. They dont dictate arbitrary cuts to us, there is negotiation. But once a standard is agreed we have to stick to it.
"Crops can be grown well without taking your eye off the environment. And if you have that in the back of your mind a slight tweaking of input use and management really can help you avoid becoming a prairie farmer," says Mr Smith.
Reducing N rates has saved money and boosted margin. "Our crops mature earlier, which may sacrifice some yield. But that isnt of paramount importance – its quality that we get paid for, not yield."
Six further demonstration farms are planned, covering all produce sectors. The farms will be used to show Waitrose staff how best practice farming can supply safe, quality food. "Our managers need to be able to answer consumer concerns from a position of knowledge," says Mr Wilson.
David Hudson, of north Cambs-based Sutton Bridge Packing, points out the need for close relationships with buyers. "Through our 15-member Waitrose grower group we are coming to understand the changing needs of potato retailers – both in variety and husbandry needs. Demands are changing very quickly and growers can be left behind."
Cost-plus pricing is the future, Mr Esom says. "Farmers have the assurance that we will buy their produce and that we will buy at a fair price, based on cost of production, plus a fair margin."
Mr Smith, who has grown for Waitrose for ten years, puts current potato production costs at £42-4400/ha (£17-1800/acre), including rental and water.
400ha all arable.
Potatoes, onions, parsnips, cereals, rape and sugar beet
160ha potatoes, 75% on rented ground
1:6 rotation, no nematicide, reduced N
3 miles of 6m headland grass strips; 1 mile of 2m beetle banks; hedge planting; unsprayed headlands.
• 400ha all arable.
• Potatoes, onions, parsnips, cereals, rape and sugar beet.
• 160ha potatoes, 75% on rented ground.
• 1:6 rotation, no nematicide, reduced N.
• Extensive irrigation.
• 3 miles of 6m headland grass strips; 1 mile of 2m beetle banks; hedge planting; unsprayed headlands.