5 September 1997

Event

host has an eye for quality

Precision and traceability are watchwords for the farmer hosting the Potato Harvest 97 Event in Suffolk.

Edward Long reports

OVER the past few years more than 90% of potatoes lifted by the host grower for this years harvester demonstration have been pre-packed.

That is a record specialist producer Tony Parr is proud of. But it is a hard won achievement. He takes a hands-on precision approach to potato production and pays a lot of attention to detail to ensure he can supply what his quality-conscious markets demand.

Mr Parr grows 162ha (400 acres) of Estima, Maris Piper and Cara on rented land within a 30 mile radius of his base at Lodge Farm, Sedge Fen, near Lakenheath, Suffolk.

"I have been interested in potatoes since I was a boy," he says. "At first I worked with my father and grew the crop for the dirty bag trade. But since I went on my own in 1983 I have grown for pre-pack outlets. Initially I had 60 to 70 acres, but expanded my business rapidly doubling the potato area in two years."

Let land

Although he owns some land at Sedge Fen, Mr Parr grows most of his 400ha (1000 acres) of potatoes, wheat and beet on short-term lets on other peoples land.

He used to grow 12 to 13 potato varieties, but recently cut back to concentrate on his customers three most popular ones. About half his crop is Piper, which is grown on black peat soil, the rest is Estima for an early harvest and Cara for late liftings on breckland sand on farms along the Suffolk/Norfolk border.

To maintain total control of the whole production operation Mr Parr grows his own seed in the north of England, something he has done for the past 13 years. This season he has 80ha (200 acres) of seed crops on a joint venture on a farm on the Duke of Northumberlands estate at Alnwick to supply his own needs, and for sale to other growers.

Super Elite and Elite seed, which is graded 35/45mm and 45/55mm arrives in Suffolk in the winter. About 100t of Piper goes into a glass chitting house where between 200 and 300 day degrees are added. The rest, the Cara and Estima, is put into a cold store and taken out a few days before planting so the eyes are just open.

A 2-row Reekie Spacesetter works on 1.83m (72in) wide wheelings, starting as soon as conditions allow and soil temperature reaches 5 to 6C (41 to 43.8F). Soil disturbance is minimised to reduce moisture loss.

To achieve a sample with a high baker fraction, precision planting with accurate spacings is essential. The smaller 35/45mm Estima seed is put in 22cm (8.6in) apart, with larger seed at 28cm (11in).

Space allowed for Cara is slightly more generous, and Piper is put in between 33-38cm (13-15in) apart. Nematicide, oxamyl (Vydate) granules, is only applied to the peatland crop.

Mr Parr only rents land for potatoes which can be irrigated. A third of the irrigation is managed by a contractor, the rest is under his control.

"I irrigate according to actual demand and visit each field two or three times a week during the critical period to assess my crops water need," he says.

"I take a fork and soil auger, as I want to know what is happening just below the ridge and at rooting depth. I do not want a severe soil moisture deficit to build up, but believe in the little-and-often approach. For scab control crops are given no more than 12 to 15mm in a single dose."

This seasons main problem has been coping with severe blight pressure. The control policy is based on early use of contact fungicide, then a switch is made to systemic materials while crops are developing new foliage. Contact protectants make a comeback later in the season before a final tin-based compound is used to prevent blight spores reaching tubers. About 21 days before harvest the crop is burnt off with acid.

The main harvester is a Reekie Clean-Flow, with a Grimme providing back-up. Lifting starts in mid August with sandland Estima, it switches to peatland Piper in mid-September, and about a month later moves back to the breckland to take up the Cara.

A workrate of up to 200t a day is achieved and the harvesting is scheduled to finish in early November. The entire crop is transported in trailers to Lodge Farm where it is split graded and boxed ready for delivery to the pre-packers.

"Since I started on my own potato growing has been transformed into a precision operation. There have even been big changes in the past two years as supermarkets exert even more influence with demands for traceability. Now this is a major factor in a modern production system, and everything we do is under constant review," Mr Parr concludes.

PARR POTATOES

&#8226 162ha of Estima, Piper and Cara.

&#8226 Mostly rented land.

&#8226 Supermarket pre-pack goal.

&#8226 Grows own seed.

&#8226 Spacing critical.

&#8226 Liquid fertiliser.

&#8226 All irrigated little and often.

PARR POTATOES

&#8226 162ha Estima, Piper and Cara.

&#8226 Mostly rented land.

&#8226 Supermarket pre-pack goal.

&#8226 Grows own seed.

&#8226 Spacing critical.

&#8226 Liquid fertiliser.

&#8226 All irrigated little and often.

Only land which can be irrigated is rented by Tony Parr, host for this years potato harvesting and handling demonstration at Knettishall, Suffolk.