9 March 2001

Stony soils a challenge to profits from potatoes

This years Northern

Ireland barometer farm lies

on the Ards Peninsular to

the east of the province.

Andrew Blake reports

MAKING a living from 81ha (200 acres) of stony medium loam at Battletown Farm, near Newtownards is a tough challenge, admits Mark McFerran, who runs the family unit in partnership with his parents, especially his father, Roy, who acts as "chief executive".

The arrival of big supermarkets about six years ago spelled the end of leek and spring onion growing. "We simply were not big enough for them," says Mr McFerran. Now the strategy is to rely on satisfying local outlets for potatoes and early cereals.

The farm is only about 35m (115ft) above sea level and with the sea on one side and Strangford Loch on the other the climate is normally quite kind. Annual rainfall averages 760mm (30in).

"It is good free-draining land which warms up quite quickly. But we have a lot of stones, some the size of footballs." As a result, stone-picking and field-rolling are constant tasks.

There is little place for new machinery at Battletown. Indeed, Mr McFerrans fleet of tractors includes a 25-year-old Massey Ferguson 185. "We also have a 1956 MF65 which we keep for loading bales. There is a good demand for straw here. It works only six weeks a year, but it has more than paid its way."

Mr McFerran does all the spraying, fertilising and combining, but for 10 years has relied on local contractor Robert Bowman for seeding.

Stony ground is a key challenge for Mark McFerran at Battletown Farm, Newtownards. But fields are fast warming, which brings early harvest advantages.