5 January 2001

SOPHISTICATED REPLIES TO STORAGE PROBLEMS

High value crops need high

tech protection when it

comes to storage.

Mike Williams reports

A SMALL group of British companies have built up an international reputation for developing high tech solutions to crop storage problems, and Grantham-based Farm Electronics is a leading player in this highly specialised niche market.

Monitoring and controlling the environment in storage buildings for crops such as potatoes and onions is routine for Bill Leslies Farm Electronics company, which has installations working throughout the UK and in a long list of overseas countries as well, but he is also called in to deal with some of the more unusual crops.

The business has equipped stores for brassicas, carrots and fruit, and occasionally for garlic and squash. Adding to the variety are pleas for help from growers who want to earn an out-of-season income from a potato or onion store by renting the space for short-term storage for cheese perhaps, or even chocolate, and this requires an adjustment or modification to existing temperature and humidity control systems.

Mr Leslie and his staff are no longer surprised when they have to deal with the unexpected. "Even if its something they have not encountered previously, published data on the correct storage requirements is usually available if you know where to find it," he says.

Although a wide range of crops are dealt with, potato storage provides the bulk of the Farm Electronics business, with onions stores some way behind in second place.

"Obviously we welcome opportunities to deal with the storage requirements for other crops, but refrigerated and ventilated storage systems for potatoes are by far the biggest part of our business," he says. "Potato growing has generally been profitable, and in this country growers have been willing to invest in equipment for the crop, and that includes good storage.

"Some of the incentive to invest has also come from the big supermarket chains and the processors in this country. They have encouraged a quality conscious approach from their suppliers and have been willing to pay a premium for produce which meets the standards they require."

The result has been an expanding market for equipment to provide the correct storage environment, and this has helped British manufacturers to establish a leading position both technically and commercially.

"Exports are an important part of our business and France is easily our biggest market overseas, although we have recently lost some orders there because of the high value of the pound. The French refer to potato storage with full temperature and ventilation control as the British System, and they obviously have a very high regard for the technology British companies have in this area.

"Unfortunately the strength of the £ means that a potato grower in France can buy locally made equipment 30% cheaper than we can supply it, and there is also increasing competition from Dutch manufacturers."

As well as France, Farm Electronics also exports to other EC countries, and the company has a small number of installations in East Africa, but the growth markets are currently in New Zealand, where there is already 11 units either working or being installed.

Exports apart, the UK remains easily the biggest market for Farm Electronics, with a customer base from Aberdeen to the south coast, and the clearest trend in the market is the increasing specialisation as potato production is concentrated among fewer but bigger growers. It is a trend Mr Leslie expects to continue, but he has mixed feelings about its impact.

"In commercial terms its a trend which suits us very well," he explains. "The big acreage growers are extremely professional and are producing for the quality end of the market, and there is no doubt that they are our customers now and in the future. But on a personal level I certainly regret seeing a situation where the smaller growers are unable to compete and are being squeezed out of the market."

Equipment for controlling ventilation in storage buildings helped Farm Electronics to grow in its early years, and louvers of various types are still an important part of the business.

Another growth area has been refrigeration packs, available in a range of sizes up to 108kW capacity, but it is the Cropscan range of electronic and computer based control units which many growers particularly associate with the company.

The first Cropscan was available in 1982. During the 1990s electronics and computer systems have moved into almost every type of farm equipment including combine harvesters with a GPS link, and even ploughs and disc harrows, but Cropscan was a much earlier example, and it was – and still is – an outstanding success. The latest version uses what Mr Leslie describes as state of the art digital processors to measure and control temperature, and is a major step forward.

Farm Electronics technology success is also to be found in its combined ambient and refrigerated cooling system which won a silver medal in the RASE/Lloyds TSB Machinery Awards Scheme in 1999. This automatically switches to drawing in air from outside when the temperature is low enough to achieve the required cooling effect in the store, avoiding the cost of running the refrigeration unit. &#42

Jonathan Atkins prepares a new 108kW capacity refrigeration pack for dispatch to a potato grower in Shropshire.

Farm Electronics managing director, Bill Leslie, checks one of the latest Cropscan 16 units on the test bench.