18 July 1998

SPUDS GROWN WITH TRUST

The trust built between a supermarket and a Cambridgeshire potato grower is enough to underwrite a trial run with organic production. David Millar reports.

WAITROSE is known for insisting on stricter standards and growing requirements for field vegetables than most of its bigger rivals. Yet growers such as Russell Smith Farms have profited from a long-term relationship which is constantly evolving.

Its a relationship which has given Robert Smith, who farms with his brother Nigel, the confidence to invest in a vast network of underground mains to take on-farm reservoir water to their own, and rented potato land, up to two miles from the home base at College Farm, Duxford, near Cambridge.

It has also given them the confidence to take back an overflow car park for the adjoining Imperial War Museum airfield and convert their first 2ha (5 acres) for organic production. "We are going into organics led by Waitrose," says Robert Smith. "In all honesty we wouldnt have contemplated it without the help of their agronomist Alan Wilson."

The first field of organic potatoes next year will cause scarcely a blip alongside the total 152ha (375 acres) of spuds grown by the Smiths this year, but they see it as a challenge which could net a worthwhile premium for them if Waitrose and the other big supermarkets are correct in their predictions of a vast, unfulfilled market for organic produce.

"I dont want to give the impression that non-organic isnt safe because the way we are growing non-organic crops is much safer and more responsible than it was 15 years ago. We question inputs much more than we used to," adds Mr Smith.

"Waitrose has its own standards which I would say are stricter than most in terms of what you can and cant do."

That has meant the early discard of organophosphate products and discontinuing the use of nematicides thanks to variety management and by following Waitroses requirement for a one in six potato rotation.

Borehole and stored winter rainwater is used on the potatoes and on 40ha (100 acres) of onions and 12ha (30 acres) of parsnips also being grown for Waitrose. Duke of York potatoes were being lifted in early July in the same field where the irrigators were already at work to safeguard the remaining crop against common scab.

Yields at College Farm average about 45t/ha (18t/acre) with the occasional surge to 49t/ha (20t/acre) but the emphasis is on well-finished attractive spuds, including Kerrs Pink, King Edwards and Desiree, rather than the big yielding varieties.

This year, admits Robert Smith, will be very much a tale of two crops. A few salad potatoes planted before rain stopped play have stayed well ahead of the later crop which was finally in the ground at the end of May. The later crop has done a little catching up but he expects a break in supplies of their specialist varieties to the Sutton Bridge packing station in Lincolnshire that takes all their output for supermarket sales.

The link with Sutton Bridge is an important one for the Smiths and for Waitrose, which uses only three pre-packers for its potato supplies. The grower-owned packing station, bought from the former Potato Marketing Board, takes in potatoes from 25 growers but only 15 of these make up the Waitrose grower group.

"It is a rather special group," admits Sutton Bridge technical director David Hudson. "We know a lot about the growers in the group and the way their potatoes are grown, and we discuss these potatoes regularly with Waitrose. An assured supply of known produce is important to us and to Waitrose."

Its an approach welcomed by another Waitrose grower, Alan Stevenson, of Great Dunmow, Essex, who values the feedback which leads him to grow varieties which the consumer finds taste good. "Finish is also much more important than 25% extra yield," he adds, "although sometimes they do go together."

He is also impressed by the desire of the more progressive supermarkets to get their most professional conventional potato growers to tackle organic production in the same professional way so that higher quality and continuity of supply can be more assured than at present. "Waitrose is prepared to help their suppliers to make a living and you wonder sometimes whether the other multiples have that same philosophy."

Maintaining close links between growers, packhouse and buyer means there is less risk of growers being left in the dark about the current requirements of the market. It also means that the supermarket takes a close interest in new techniques and encourages growers to try these out.

Last year Mr Smith, who normally uses boom or rain gun irrigation, was asked by Waitrose to trial trickle irrigation using tape. Although costing £740-990/ha (£300-400/acre) extra over the more familiar methods, it is more economical with water, using perhaps 30% less although fine-tuning of supply is still to be worked out.

"It is certainly something we shall use with the organic production because it will create less of a microclimate in the crop for blight," Robert Smith points out. A reasonably blight resistant variety will be chosen for organic production which will be geared towards early harvest for punnet sale.

Although Waitrose is in constant discussion with both Sutton Bridge and with growers, agronomist Alan Wilson says there are no written contracts between growers and the multiple, the agreements relying on trust and individual negotiations should the market shift before potatoes are lifted.

He agrees that Waitrose protocols may appear strict alongside those of other supermarkets and the Assured Produce Scheme which the supermarket supports. "Our customers feel that Waitrose is a low input store with a lot of emphasis on organics," says Mr Wilson, who argues that low inputs includes assessing a suppliers attitudes to the environment.

"In reality, farmers up and down the country are farming to a very high standard," adds Mr Wilson. Farms supplying Waitrose, however, should be adopting a "whole farm philosophy". They should be part of the Assured Produce Scheme and independently verified, perhaps considering a diversification into organic production, and have a high level of environmental awareness.

On that score, College Farm – host to the increasingly rare stone curlew – rates highly. Waitrose has now made it the first of several demonstration farms it plans to use for showing staff and customers how modern farming methods can produce safe and healthy food at low environmental cost.

Steven Esom, Waitrose buying director, underlines the point. "It is important to raise farming issues with our customers because there is no doubt customers are getting further away from the land and from knowledge of the land," he says. "We need to spend time with our customers, educating them in how we are approaching our relationship with farmers."

Waitrose director Steven Esom (left) and Robert Smith both value quality potatoes.

We assess supplier attitudes to the environment – Alan Wilson.