14 June 1996

Tune-up needed for top potato profits

By Robert Davies

ALL aspects of potato management need fine tuning, including nutrient testing, to counter inevitable pressures on profitability, claims one Shropshire grower.

Mike Stokes, who farms as J D and B E Stokes and Son at New House Farm, Wolverley, Wem, believes increased plantings after the end of quotas, the free movement of potatoes within the EU, and tougher processor and retailer specifications will challenge even the most professional of growers. His familys company has been fully committed to potatoes for two decades; 84.86ha (210 acres) are grown, mostly on rented land.

Feeding the crop correctly to optimise plant health and yields has always been a priority. In the past he bought trace elements in bulk and made blanket applications. But since 1994 he has used plant tissue analysis.

Though no field comparisions have been done, he is sure that iden-tifying crop needs accurately has improved total and ware yields. "We have always tried to give the crop everything it needs, but it is possible to miss something," Mr Stokes says. "Equally, we could have been supplying trace elements the plant does not require."

He admits growers have to trust that the field sampling and analysis are done properly, and that the right corrective treatment is formulated by his supplier, Barry Hawkin of the Shrewsbury-based company Fielder.

Having first tried petiole testing on fields where there was a high risk of trace element lock-up, and being pleased with the results, Mr Stokes is planning to use the technique on more of the 1996 crop. He would test even more if the £25 a field cost could be cut, possibly by training one of his own workers to take the required 80 samples a field.

"Potatoes are such a high input crop that the benefits of greater precision justify the investment. Petiole testing and the use of nutrient mixes that are tailor-made to plant requirements has worked for us on potatoes and carrots."

Mike Stokes with early planted Pentland Dell grown under contract for early processing into kettle chips. Fine-tuning nutrient inputs is vital for best profits, he maintains.