24 October 1997

Growers breed their own

FARMING groups and individuals are breeding their own potato varieties in a bid to break the strictures of supply and price controls imposed by the big breeding companies and retail outlets.

Zenith Potatoes is one of the latest examples. It brings together two producer co-operatives in north-east Scotland and a leading English merchant.

"Supply and price of high-grade breeding material for the major new varieties is strictly controlled by the breeders. Farmers are being restricted in what they can grow because of these controls," says Tim Halliwell, sales director for the Aberdeen Seed Potato Organisation.

"The three options for a group like ours is to grow varieties which are freely available and not commanding royalty payments, grow on contract for some of the majors, or get into the business of developing our own new varieties.

"We are currently growing uncontrolled varieties, but have joined forces with neighbouring Grampian Growers and &#42 and J M Bennett of London to share the cost of a breeding programme under the banner of Zenith Potatoes," Mr Halliwell explains.

"Another major factor is that all the processors want a variety exclusive to them. They are prepared to put big money into breeding programmes, but they want results very quickly and are not necessarily prepared to wait for the normal national trials system. So, to compete, we have to be able to produce our own new varieties."

Major crisper

The group has a contract with one of the major crispers to grow varieties like Hermes and Saturna which are not controlled. "We have to produce what the processors want," Mr Halliwell stresses.

We are unable to grow Cara and Estima, which are so favoured by supermarkets, profitably. They are controlled varieties and the constraints imposed by the controllers mean we cannot grow then for our own customers and the grower contracts offered are not attractive," Mr Halliwell adds.

"Nine growers produce about 7000t of high quality seed and, apart from growing on contract for a processor, Zenith Potatoes aims at niche markets both at home and abroad.

"Quality and service are our selling points. We have a full agronomy service for members from the Scottish Agricultural College and have installed a £140,000 Schouten grading line. Variety choice is down to me because we aim to grow for markets rather than grow a crop and then have to look for sales," he adds.

&#8226 Mr Halliwell believes there will be a premium for quality samples this season. "We have burned down early and sprayed weekly throughout August against blight. It has been costly, but there was no point in skimping.

"We have a drying wall capable of blowing air through 200t at a time. It will be very important to ensure we store a dry crop. It will be a season when in-store disease and losses will be high unless proper care is taken and that is what we intend to do," says Mr Halliwell.

Breed your own varieties to beat the big breeding companies – thats the policy Tim Halliwell is following at the Aberdeen Seed Potato Organisation.