GROWING A GOOD crop of potatoes starts with attention to preparing the soil, reasons Russell Price.
And it is reasonable to expect that a man who grows over 485ha (1200 acres) of potatoes each year should know what he is talking about.
Mr Price, based at Upper House Farm, Moreton on Lugg, a few miles north of Hereford, grows 120ha (300 acres) of the crop on fields he rents locally and a further 365ha (900 acres) mostly on a “stubble-to-stubble” basis for other farmers.
“Most of our potatoes are for the pre-pack market, so they have got to be damage free,” he says.
“The vast majority of them are sold through Fenmarc and Asda, which have pretty stringent quality controls.
“A significant tonnage now goes through Fenmarc”s Vendor assurance scheme, which guarantees the quality off farm.
” So quality is clearly an essential factor in the success or failure of Mr Price”s potato enterprise, and being able to select fields – and soil type – in which to grow the crop helps to achieve this aim.
“The soil type is so important. I like to use slightly heavier soil than most would choose – it helps to produce potatoes with a better skin finish,” he says.
“The problem with heavier land is that we tend to be later getting on to it in the spring. And, at the other end of the job, harvesting can be a difficult operation if it is left too late, so timing is crucial.
” Mr Price also prefers soil with some fibre in it, soil with a structure which is going to help both with drainage in wet times and moisture retention in drier conditions.
“I suppose we are quite fortunate in this part of the country in that there is still a high element of mixed farming activity, which means that there are ample supplies of muck and grassland,” he says.
Preparation of potato ground starts with ploughing, usually in the winter, but increasingly in the spring.
Mr Price recognises the value of over-wintered stubbles for wildlife and to cut soil erosion.
A John Deere 7920 is coupled to a six-furrow Lemken plough for the vast majority of the acreage.
“It”s good to get some frosts into the heavy soil, but if we plough in the spring at the right time we can still achieve a good tilth,” he says.
“The soil also tends to warm up quicker through spring ploughing – hugely beneficial when planting seed potatoes coming out of cold storage.
“The timing of all cultivation is important if the best results are to be achieved at the lowest cost. It is always better to go with the season rather than try to fight it.
” He points out a mistake he has made in the past – to try to create a tilth which is too fine, to the point where the very structure has been lost, causing the soil to slump and refuse to dry out.
He now aims to plant seed potatoes in a tilth which is well worked, but still has a good texture, one that is probably more cloddy than many growers would consider suitable.
But before the planter arrives, the soil is ridged and de-stoned. It is the de-stoning operation which Mr Price has some reservations about.
“The quality of the crop we are aiming to produce dictates we de-stone/de-clod,” he says.
“But it is an expensive operation, and I am not sure whether with less demanding crops – those destined for processing, for example – it always makes financial sense. It depends on the soil type.
” With the sheer volume of work needed in the spring, Mr Price has four planting gangs working, each with their own cultivation kit, de-stoner and planter.
“The crop is planted in 1.8m wide two-row beds, which suit our system.
“A good crop of potatoes needs a good start and that means creating a decent seed-bed.”