29 September 2000

High speed growth gives ware producers an edge

By Charles Abel

PRISTINE seed potatoes available for ware production after just three generations of multiplication could revolutionise crop husbandry, claim backers of a new venture to grow seed potatoes in north Wales.

"Our seed is clean and phenomenally vigorous, it just bursts out of the ground," says Edward Jones, a partner in Solanex, the joint venture company created to multiply seed from tissue culture and plantlets produced by specialist company Noval.

Varietal characteristics are also expressed far more strongly in the early generation seed.

Key to the project is fast seed multiplication, pre-basic seed being made available to seed growers after just two generations compared with five or six normally.

That is made possible by new techniques developed by Noval Production based on the direct field planting of glasshouse produced plantlets, rather than mini-tuber production under glass, says Noval group technical adviser Tom Stones.

A sophisticated management package ensures 90% of daughter tubers are sized 20-25mm, significantly increasing the tuber count compared with alternative techniques. "The production system involves innovative technology, but does not employ hormones, growth accelerators or GM technology," says Mr Stones.

"The goal is to produce the maximum number of tubers to accelerate the multiplication process," says Mr Jones, a former early potato grower at Llangefni on Anglesey and chairman of the North Wales AgriLink machinery ring.

This year 13ha (33 acres) is in production, two-thirds of it growing 100-120t of high tuber count F2 pre-basic seed, which MAFF has already certified. Next year that will rise to 65ha (160 acres) producing 1500-1600t of pre-basic.

Varieties include Nicola, Desiree, Maris Piper and Hermes. "It is all free varieties this year to prove the technology, but we hope to move to contracts with controlled varieties next year," says Mr Jones.

"North Wales is an excellent place to produce pre-basic seed," says Mr Stones. Virgin potato ground and low aphid pressure mean PCN, virus and disease risks are minimal. "We can produce seed in three generations which has significantly less risk of virus, disease or PCN than anything commercially available."

Although Solanex seed may sell for a premium, Noval calculations suggest seed growers could market ware seed competitively after just one years multiplication.

"We think it is entirely possible that all seed used for ware production could be of only third generation stock compared with the sixth or seventh generation seed currently in use." &#42

SOLANEXSEED

&#8226 Super-clean seed.

&#8226 Fast multiplication.

&#8226 Only three generations.

&#8226 More vigorous growth.

&#8226 Clean land in north Wales.

Local boost

The initiative could be a big boost for local growers, says Mr Jones. "Farmers in this area have been finding it very hard to diversify. This offers them a substantial £200/acre rent for upland ground. At the moment we do all the crop management, husbandry and inputs, but in future there may be scope for contract production."

WDA support

Noval and Solanexs move into Wales has the support of the Welsh Development Agency, which is helping the companies seek public sector support for machinery, marketing and a 3000t cold store through numerous sources, including EU objective 1 grants, venture capital and private sector finance.