18 June 1999

Belgian spud giant has focus fixed on growth

Potatoes are big business

for Belgian grower Ronny

Poelvoorde. In just four years

he has expanded the family

enterprise to become the

biggest producer in Belgium

by far. Andrew Swallow

reports on his strategy

BELGIAN grower Ronny Poelvoorde considers himself a specialist businessman rather than a farmer.

Pursuing that philosophy has seen him become the biggest potato producer in Belgium by far.

With 750ha (1850 acres) of potatoes this season, up from 430ha last year (Arable, Apr 17, 1998), he grows nearly twice the area of the next biggest producer, and that is a factory.

Annual rents of virgin potato ground are the core of his strategy. Around his 6ha (15 acre) base at Dentergem, near Ghent, in Flanders, such land is hard to come by. "But by travelling just 20km further you find farms that have never grown potatoes before," he says.

Increasingly that is taking him south and east. Many crops are grown in the Namur region of Belgium, and this season he has 200ha (500 acres) near Reims, in the Champagne region of France. "It is still reachable. If I see someone at 10am in Reims, I can leave at noon, be in Namur for the afternoon, and back home by evening." Mr Poelvoordes last car had 56,000 miles on the clock after just 10 months.

The French crops were planted with the Poelvoordes own equipment, but spraying is on contract. "It is part of a 2000ha estate. They have five sprayers, one of which will be used only for our potatoes," says Mr Poelvoorde.

Lifting will be en bloc from mid-July to mid-August, using a new five-wheel steer, 430hp Dewulf machine made specially for Mr Poelvoorde. While only a two-row machine, a 12t holding tank means output should be equivalent to a three-row lifter, he reckons. "It should do a hectare every one-and-a-half hours."

When finished in France, it will join a second lifter in Belgium working through to November. Last year lifting finished on Nov 8.

Typical cost of production is about £2500/ha (£1000/acre), including management costs which Mr Poelvoorde puts at £330/ha (£135/acre). Too many growers exclude fuel, phone, accountants fees, etc, from their costs, which keeps contract prices lower than they should be, he believes.

Last season sale values ranged from £42/t in September to £60/t in May, depending on variety, dry matter and fry colour. This year they are a little higher. Production over 40t/ha (16t/acre) can be sold on the open market.

Mr Poelvoordes contract deliveries start on Jul 15, but he hopes to lift an 11ha (27-acre) crop of Premiere grown in Flanders in the last week of June. That should yield 30t/ha, making a profit of £4000/ha (£1620/acre), he estimates.

A total of 15 varieties are grown to produce a continuous supply of processing potatoes for FarmFrites. Dealing with just one processor is very important to build up a good business relationship, he stresses.

Fertiliser is tailored to individual variety needs, but tissue testing is not used. "By the time you find out a plant is short of something it is too late," he says.

Stimulant helps increase yield

FOR the third year running, and on a bigger area, top Belgian potato grower Ronny Poelvoorde is using plant growth stimulant Fulcrum CRV.

Of his 750ha (1850 acre) crop, 80% will receive the £60/ha molasses-based product. "Cargill claim 8-10% yield increases and I can confirm that. Also there is less waste, which means more marketable yield," he says.

For late-season varieties yield increase is his main aim. But for earlies advanced crop maturity means target dry matters and yields are achieved sooner. That means higher prices on early-season processing contracts.

Last season a half field trial on variety Glimax saw dry matter increased by about 0.5% compared to untreated when lifted in August. Another late planted field of second early variety Felsina yielded 40t/ha at target dry matters in just 93 days, at least a week earlier than expected, thanks to the Fulcrum, says Mr Poelvoorde.

Applications should coincide with the hook stage of stolon development, says Cargills Nousheh Ghadiri. At that stage energy demand from the rapidly dividing tuber cells normally exceeds the supply from photosynthesis, so growth is limited. By applying Fulcrum growers provide a carbohydrate energy boost and remove that limitation. &#42