The UK potato sector is a good starting point for many new farming careers and the Potato Council is spearheading an initiative this autumn to help members recruit new entrants. Farmers Weekly talks to some who recently made the move
British potatoes are a key part of the UK farming sector with a total consumer sales value of £5.7bn, but as with other farming sectors, it is proving increasingly difficult to attract the right people.
It’s a scientifically progressive, technically advanced and environmentally responsible industry, says Sharon Hall, Potato Council’s head of communications and knowledge transfer. “It is a rewarding sector for individuals with a wide range of talents and skills.”
However, the council’s latest industry survey identified that more than 60% of farming companies and over 75% of supply chain businesses were finding it difficult to secure employees of the right calibre. “The majority believe they’ll have a staffing gap over the next five years,” she says.
That’s why the Potato Council is focusing on attracting young professionals to the industry this autumn. Here is a round-up of some who have successfully started a career in the potato sector.
Case study: Ian Pennock, 25, fieldsman at McCain, North Yorkshire
A serving member of the Royal Navy on the high seas may seem a long way from the potato field, but it is a successful journey that Ian Pennock made after deciding to make a career in growing potatoes.
After growing up on a small grassland farm, on the edge of the North York Moors, he joined the Royal Navy and served on HMS Liverpool as an electronic warfare technician.
“But at 20, I wanted a career in agriculture,” says Mr Pennock. He worked on a self-employed basis for a seed potato grower on the Yorkshire Wolds and also undertook work experience with two local agronomists, which convinced him to take a technical route.
During this time, Mr Pennock passed his BASIS qualification and enrolled in a part-time foundation degree in agriculture and land management at Askham Bryan College.
After completing his degree, he secured a job with McCain Foods, spent a year as an agronomy assistant working at various trial sites before arriving at his post as trainee fieldsman. McCain is the largest processor of potatoes in Great Britain, using 15% of the national crop.
“I support 38 contract growers from Worksop, Nottinghamshire in the south to Ripon, North Yorkshire and my role covers all aspects of the crop, from planning varieties, to storage and delivery. The aim is to maximise on-farm output, to the benefit of farmers and McCain.”
Mr Pennock particularly likes the diversity of the role and working with a whole range of potato enterprises from large farming estates to smaller farming operations.
“I get involved in all areas of the supply chain from seed, through to plate. I also get to work with senior international figures in McCains and with key customers such as McDonald’s, retailers and other food service businesses.”
Case study: Oli Coe, 25, project engineer at the Farm Energy Centre, Warwickshire
A love of engineering saw Oli Coe start his farming career at the Farm Energy Centre after leaving university with a civil engineering degree.
“My role as an engineer is varied, that’s the attraction of working for a smaller company. It’s challenging at times, but ultimately rewarding,” explains Mr Coe.
He works with government departments, industry organisations, utility companies and manufacturers, and provides a wide range of advice and practical support to farmers and growers.
Mr Coe focuses on technical research projects and involves site visits, lots of outdoor work, and talking to farmers and growers, as well as the odd presentation. He also gets involved with data analysis and report writing.
“There’s nothing more important than the food we eat, so for me, combining a job dealing with the people providing it, environmental issues and my engineering background was ideal,” says Mr Coe.
“We’ve been working closely with Potato Council’s Sutton Bridge Crop Storage Research on a project to reduce the energy use and carbon footprint of GB potato storage.
Case study: Claire Hodge, 29, technical executive, Potato Council, Edinburgh
Newcastle University agriculture graduate Claire Hodge comes from a dairy farming family in the borders and while she wanted to remain in farming, she had already decided against dairying.
“Not having to get up at 4.30am to milk the cows was a big attraction to the potato sector,” says Ms Hodge. When studying for her degree, she spent the summer holidays working for Greenvale AP. When she returned from New Zealand, she secured a full-time position with the company.
“The role at Greenvale gave me the opportunity work closely with the factory, farmers and the growing crop. I learnt a lot about the potato industry and after five years, I moved to Branston to take on a role as senior buyer.”
Ms Hodge now works as a technical executive for the Potato Council and her role is diverse, working with a broad spectrum of people involved in promoting, improving and challenging the potato industry.
“I’m involved in research projects and help deliver best practice messages to everyone involved in working with the potato crop, to ultimately improve the competitiveness of GB potato production.
“Farming is not easy, so being able to help growers interpret new R&D or get a handle of their cost of production is really rewarding,” she says.
Case study: Matthew Wallace, 27, assistant farm manager, Fridlington Farms, North Yorkshire
Kick start your potato career
A special initiative is taking place at the industry’s biennial event in Harrogate, focusing on attracting young professionals to the sector. Potato Council invites new talent to come and explore the opportunities at the event, including tips on writing CVs.
Entry is free for young professionals and they can register for the BP2013 event at www.potato.org.uk/bp2013
Although not from a farming background, Matthew Wallace has always been interested in arable farming.
“My passion for the potato crop started on a work placement, when I worked on a Velcourt farm in South Lincolnshire during the sandwich year of my Agriculture and Land Management degree at the Royal Agricultural College,” he says.
After graduating, Mr Wallace gained a place on the Velcourt trainee management scheme, in Northumberland, growing seed potatoes.
In late 2010 Matthew moved to his role at Fridlington Farms and his responsibilities include managing the potato operations, totalling 220ha of processing potatoes for McCain Foods and Walkers crisps.
Case study: Fiona Smith, 24, exports administrator at Cygnet, Kinross, Scotland
After graduating in health psychology, Fiona Smith’s aim was to simply get a job to earn some money before deciding fully which career path she wanted to take.
“A job came up in the potato section in Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) and I started off working in the variety testing and genetic resources team which included carrying out national list trials for all new potato varieties.”
She was attracted to the variation of working outdoors, in an office environment and also in a laboratory.
“I was developing lots of new skills, enjoying the variety and variation of the work and it was then that I knew a career in the potato industry was for me,” she explains.
Ms Smith now works for two companies, Cygnet PB, one of the biggest potato breeders and seed marketers in the UK and Cygnet PEP which exports seed to more than 30 countries.
“My role involves dealing with the documentation needed for sending seed all over the world during the export season and breeding new salad, prepack, crisping and chipping varieties during the summer.”
The Potato Council is funding four studentships as part of the new look AHDB scheme launched this autumn, with the aim of delivering the researchers of the future.
Mike Storey, Potato Council’s head of R&D says that the new scheme is a significant commitment by the GB potato industry to support the training of new PhD researchers. “They will have the scientific knowledge and technical skills needed to address the challenges faced by the industry in the future and provide practical solutions.”
One example is Katarzyna (Kasia) Dybal who is starting a phD at Harper Adams University looking at potato cyst nematode. She is a graduate of the Warsaw University of Life Science.
“Plant pathology has always fascinated me and I’ve been interested in crop production since my childhood, harvesting potatoes with my parents on our small farm in Poland,” says Ms Dybal.
“Through a combination of academic study and research, I have become acutely aware of how destructive potato cyst nematode can be. Development of effective and safe methods of control is crucial.”
Further north in Scotland, Lara Hilley has just started her project at jointly at the James Hutton Institute, Dundee and the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health in Aberdeen, looking at starch and sugars in potatoes. Her research interests focus heavily on using fruits and vegetables to prevent the onset of dietary diseases like diabetes and in plant genetics.
“In human consumption terms, potatoes are the third largest food crop in the world. There’s an emerging opportunity for the potato industry to develop and breed varieties, with increased health benefits,” she explains.
“The publication of the potato genome sequence will enable us to identify desirable traits associated with starch and sugar content, identify candidate genes and markers for starch qualities which I hope will lead to varieties with lower glycemic indexes.” The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly blood sugar levels rise after eating a particular type of food.