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Investing in quality potato production key to SPot Farm’s success

The first AHDB Strategic Potato Farm (SPot) in northern England will hold its first meeting this spring. 


Marianne   Curtis

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Marianne   Curtis
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Farm manager, Will Gagg
Farm manager, Will Gagg

Maximising quality in store is a key goal for R.J. and A.E. Godfrey and something they aim to get even better at as a result of becoming northern England’s first AHDB Strategic Potato (SPot) Farm.

 

The business farms just over 4,000 hectares (9,880 acres), near Brigg in North Lincolnshire, including sandy loam/free-draining chalk on the Lincolnshire Wolds and Grade 1 silts on the Isle of Axholme.

 

Most of the potatoes are grown on annual rented land, with about 440ha (1,086 acres) of the crop planted each year. All are maincrop ware potatoes destined for packers, says director Alex Godfrey. “Most of what we sell is on free buy and one-third is contracts directly with packers and a supermarket doing its own packing.

 

“Spot has worked well. On balance we feel we do better that way. More recently it has become harder to sell free buy if you don’t have some contracted tonnage.”

 

Free buy

 

Success in the free buy market depends on producing the quality and varieties consumers want and one-third of the potato acreage is Maris Piper, with Estima, Nectar, Melody, Sapphire, Desiree and a small area of Silvana also grown, according to farm manager Will Gagg. “There’s a saying that a slug will cross a road to get to Maris Piper and it still gets scab but it is a popular and premium variety and you have to grow what the consumer wants.”

 

Yields average 54t/ha on the farm, with some varieties averaging 75t/ha in the 2017 season, says Mr Gagg. “The best yielding variety was Nectar last year on wold and silt land. The only problem is some secondary packers don’t like the pink eye and it has the potential to be a late variety, with harvest starting in the second week of October at the earliest, so you couldn’t grow 1,000 acres.”

 

Potatoes are kept in one tonne boxes in refrigerated stores and Mr Godfrey says there is a noticeable difference in skin finish between potatoes grown on silt or wold land. “We expect a good proportion to store through to June. Those grown on silts will store quite nicely for that but those grown on wolds land dull a bit earlier and we move them out by April.”


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Crop nutrition

 

One area the business is keen to investigate further through participating in the SPot programme is crop nutrition. Two years ago, Ian Robertson of Glenside recommended using Albrecht soil analysis on the farm, says Mr Gagg. “Ian Robertson turned our thinking to nutrition; not just what was in the soil but nutrient holding capacity and nutrient lock-up.

 

“It has changed what base fertilisers we buy. Fertilisers are tailored to the field. We used to do 0:24:24 or 0:26:26. Now we inject nitrogen and phosphorous straight down the row and use two different blends 43K:17MgO:11SO3 or 37K:17MgO:14SO3 depending on soil type. The amount applied is also tailored to each field.

 

“We have noticed a massive difference in rooting with more fibrous roots with more hairs.”

 

Mr Gagg says he has noticed a yield difference but it has not been measured, however, he is hopeful this will be possible as part of the SPot Farm work with AHDB.

 

Weed control

 

Weed control is proving costlier following the loss of linuron, says Mr Gagg. “Losing linuron was a bit of a blow. We’ve trialled a few things and are using Artist and Defy – we want as much contact and residual chemistry as possible and are using them in conjunction with each other. But this has increased costs by about a third more per hectare.”

 

A Grimme Hiller hoe is also helping to tackle black-grass and other weeds, says Mr Gagg. “Some of the land, more on the silts, was suffering with black-grass and we have a hoe now that matches the planter. We are doing it selectively. It’s fantastic – black-grass won’t get resistant to that. We hoe as late as we dare before the canopy closes in.”

 

Regarding blight control, Mr Gagg has concerns about resistance to fluazinam and says he will not be using the active this season.

Labour

 

The business employs 12 full-time staff and brings in 25 seasonal local staff to help with harvesting and a further 25 seasonal staff, mainly Eastern European, to grade potatoes. While recruitment was not too difficult in 2017, with a large Eastern European population in the Lincolnshire area, Mr Godfrey says they are having to plan labour requirements a little further in advance, than previously.

 

“We are alive to the issue of labour. We expect it to get a bit harder in 2018 and 2019. In terms of threats to our business, labour is the biggest one and we are keen to ensure we have a supply as what we are doing supports local employment too.”

 

In terms of opportunities, Mr Godfrey hopes Brexit will bring an opportunity to address restrictive crop protection rules. “It is woeful, the amount of new actives being approved. If this continues, we will really struggle. We hope for rules that are more fit for purpose and on a level with our EU competitors. There are a lot they can use that we can’t.

 

“Top of the list is sprout suppressants such as dimethylnapthalene that can be used in Holland but not here. We want to maintain high standards but it is important we don’t ramp them up to make us uncompetitive.”

 

Investment

 

Looking ahead, while there are currently no plans to expand the potato enterprise, Mr Godfrey says the business is continuing to invest in improving efficiency. “We have recently invested in harvesting and planting machinery and storage is the next big project. Currently we rent a lot of third party stores. Some are older stores and we could build better quality storage which is more efficient and better located.”

 

Mr Godfrey is looking forward to the experience of hosting a SPot farm. “We are keen to share what we do and learn from ideas other people have as well. We want to improve the way we grow potatoes and I will be happy to see progress in any direction.”

 

 

Alex Godfrey
Alex Godfrey

AHDB SPot Farms

The SPot Farm programme scales up research and demonstrates on-farm implementation of the science from AHDB’s £1.5m annual R&D investment in a commercial, field-scale environment.

 

It offers growers an insight into how new systems and practice can be implemented at their own potato enterprise, involving a series of open days and workshops throughout each season.

 

SPot Farm locations

 

SPot Farm North: R.J. and A.E. Godfrey, North Lincolnshire (newly launched)

SPot Farm East: Elveden Farms, West Suffolk

SPot Farm South West: Dillington, Somerset

SPot Farm West: Heal Farms, Shropshire

SPot Farm Scotland: Bruce Farms, Perthshire

 

The first SPot Farm North meeting is on June 7. There will be four meetings this year looking at irrigation, use of headlands, nutrition and common scab.

SPot Farm North facts

 

R.J. and A.E. Godfrey, Brigg, North Lincolnshire.

Farm 4,000 hectares. Most of potatoes grown on annual rented land. Rest of arable is a combination of owned and rented land.

Soil types: Grade 1 silts, Isle of Axholme and Grade 2 sandy loam/free draining chalk, Lincolnshire Wolds.

Rainfall: 600-650mm.

 

Cropping

 

Winter wheat – feed varieties 50%.

Sugar beet 10%.

Winter and spring barley 10%.

Oilseed rape 10%.

Vining peas 10%.

Potatoes 10% - maincrop ware for packing.

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