9 March 2001

POTATO CONTRACTING IS ALL ABOUT QUALITY

Machinery investment and

high quality standards are

the cornerstones of

contracting in potatoes,

according to a Norfolk

operator. Peter Hill reports

QUALITY with a capital Q sums-up the philosophy at Peak Potato Services, a specialist Norfolk firm that, as a grower, contractor and merchant, has a hand in all the key stages of potato production.

"Whether were lifting our own crops or harvesting for customers, we apply the same philosophy," says production manager Shaun Langley. "We want a reputation for only supplying a quality service and quality potatoes."

To illustrate the point he refers to the pre-harvest training that staff go through to remind them how to keep tuber bruising and damage to a minimum. How purpose-built field bulkers with timber lining and unloading conveyors contribute to lack of bruising. And how harvesters are allocated to full-time staff who help perform winter overhauls for a better understanding of the way their machines function.

"There has been a phenomenal improvement in harvester and grader performance, with new cleaning elements and minimal drops helping to keep damage levels low at increased throughputs," notes Mr Langley. "But a lot of responsibility still rests with operators who need to understand what we expect of them and be trained accordingly."

The most recent quality initiative comes in the form of a pair of vans specially kitted out for quality assessments. The aim is to have one of these vehicles on hand for all loading operations – whether in the field during harvest or in the farm yard when crops are being loaded out from store.

The purpose-designed interiors accommodate a key collection of equipment and instruments, including a peeler, an under water weigher (to calculate moisture content), microwave oven and a deep fat fryer.

"We are aiming to cut our rejection rate to zero by making quality assessments on the spot rather than waiting for results to come back from laboratory samples," says Mr Langley. "That may not earn us anything but it will reduce the hassle of dealing with rejected loads, it will enhance our reputation with customers, and it will save growers the costs associated with rejects."

Rejection rate has already dropped from 16% to 6% barely a year since the quality assessment mobiles were introduced, he adds.

Know customers needs

"The operators have worked with all the customers we supply to ensure we understand their requirements and work to the same standards," says Mr Langley. "If a problem is found at loading, we can set about re-directing the consignment before any additional haulage costs are incurred."

Being able to get on-the-spot assessments of such characteristics as fry colour, moisture content, sugar level, skin blemishes, greens, bruising and other evidence of mechanical damage is also useful in helping growers understand why their consignments have to be re-directed or risk being rejected by the buyer.

Although the facility is being used only on Peaks own-grown and merchanted crops, it will become available to other growers and merchants, adding to an already comprehensive collection of contract services focused on potatoes.

"We can do as much or as little as growers want, but there is certainly a trend towards doing more," Mr Langley explains. "And thats understandable when you look at the machinery investment needed, with harvesters alone over £60,000 apiece."

Contracting is a logical extension of the companys own production, which currently amounts to some 490ha (1200 acres). Ten growers in the area – with around 304ha (750 acres) of potatoes between them – make use of Peaks services which extend across the board from field cultivation to haulage.

That demands an extensive equipment fleet, including stone/ clod separators; mouldboard ridgers and powered bed tillers; planters for different row and bed layouts; irrigators; a trio of harvesters; and a fleet of field and road trailers as well as the tractors and lorries to pull them.

From boxes to bulk

There is also a mobile grader for on-farm use, and a £250,000 static set-up, installed a year ago at Peaks Boughton Farm base, Stoke Ferry near Kings Lynn, capable of grading up to five sizes and handling any transport system from boxes to bulk.

"When we harvest, we take everything using the smallest web possible," says Shaun Langley. "Mostly because we can find a market for everything but also because it leaves the grower with fewer ground-keeper problems."

Because of the logistics involved, harvesting is the most challenging operation. With much of the work orientated towards processing, big volumes are involved.

"Were looking to put between 200t and 250t over each grader every day, and that calls for a lot of co-ordination of field machinery and road bulkers," points out Mr Langley. "It is difficult enough when conditions are favourable but life becomes very difficult when conditions deteriorate to the extent they did this past autumn."

Those who questioned the sense in paying several thousand pounds for wheel drive on the trio of harvesters have seen their value. But even harvester wheel drive has been unable to keep things on the move with the conditions experienced this year.

Focus on quality

When things are running smoothly, the focus comes firmly on doing a quality lifting job. Harvester operators attend manufacturer training courses on setting up their machines and have also attended a damage workshop run by the local machinery dealer.

Seasonal staff brought in to work on trailers and grading machinery also get the quality message.

"We impose a strict maximum drop of 90mm (4in), whether loading from the cart elevator or tipping into a bulk hopper," Mr Langley points out. "We show them how to do it and expect that to stick to that standard. But they also have to agree to carry out the work with due diligence and care, which includes keeping a keen eye out for any glass or other debris that could end up in the crop." &#42

Shaun Langley: "We can do as much or as little as growers want, but there is certainly a trend towards doing more."