A determination to increase acreage has enabled one Northern Ireland family to work together to grow their traditional crop. Barbara Hay visits the McCartney family.
Mickey McCartney and his sons Brian and James grow several varieties of potatoes for Glens of Antrim, a locally-owned and managed supplier of an extensive range of potato varieties.
The company sources these potatoes from farmers such as the McCartneys, who live near the town of Dungiven, near Limavady.
Mickey owns a 12-hectare (30-acre) farm and has always predominantly grown potatoes until 10 years ago, when he concentrated on rearing pigs.
Brian and James trained as a butcher and carpenter, respectively, as there was not enough in pig farming to keep all three of them within the business.
Brian says: “I worked for seven years in McAtamney Butcher in Kilrea. James is three years younger than me. He did carpentry when he left school, but he started working with Dad on potatoes earlier than I did.”
The McCartneys now rent about 69 hectares (170 acres) to grow their potatoes from a group of 10 farmers who all live within a seven-mile radius of each other.
Brian says: “It has been a gradual process and we are happy with the amount of land we are growing on.”
Once potatoes are harvested, a selection of break crops are sown and include wheat, barley and oilseed rape.
Brian says: “The sandy, light, dry soil in the area is perfect for growing potatoes and, although it is more clay-based where the farm is near the mountain, it gets progressively more sandy as you move towards the north coast.
“There is a rapeseed oil producer in Limavady called Broighter Gold and the growing popularity of the oil means more and more local farmers are growing oilseed rape. Wheat and barley grown are cash crops and barley is sold as animal feed.”
Brian McCartney says Lumper potatoes are a bit of a gimmick, but offer a talking point among customers
The McCartneys rent about 69ha (170 acres) from a group of 10 farmers
The family’s relationship with Glens of Antrim began when their Mickey and his then partner John Hill signed up to be growers and evolved to now include Brian and James.
Brian says: “Growing for Glens of Antrim keeps the three of us working full-time in the business.
“Mum also gets a small wage, as she makes sure lunches are made and sells potatoes at home when we are out harvesting. She is the main cog in the operation.
“At busy times, such as planting and harvesting, we hire in five or six extra people who are children of local farmers with free time and want a change of scenery.”
Varieties grown are determined by Glens of Antrim which has a core aim of supplying pre-packaged potatoes to supermarkets. They sell to retail outlets across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, with customers including Marks and Spencer, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Lidl and Dunnes Stores.
The Glens of Antrims buyer tells the McCartneys how many acres to plant of each and provides seeds for them to grow.
They are mostly second earlies and main crop varieties such as Saxon, Casablanca, Navan, Rooster, Cultra, Estima, Orla, Harmony, King Edwards, Kerrs Pinks, Marafona, Arran Victory and Sante.
The family has discovered there are differences in preference depending on the geographical location of customers.
Brian says: “We find people who live in the city prefer a waxier potato, while country people tend to like the more floury types. Country people like them drier, but the city people go more for a clean skin finish and presentation in general.
“Saxon and the Marafona in particular are what we call city potatoes. They are waxy with a very smooth skin finish. We also plant a few acres of Lumper potatoes, which are really knobbly.
“By the time you have peeled them, half the potato is gone, but they do taste good. They are not something I think people buy twice. It is a bit of a gimmick and a talking point I suppose, but it is nice to grow such an old variety.
“This variety was not grown for a long time in Ireland because Lumper was the main variety grown before the Famine, which wiped out so much of the population in the 19th century. But they are now being distributed by Glens of Antrim.”
The machinery fleet includes a harvester, seven tractors, a forklift, six trailers, two destoners, two bed tillers, a planter and two small forklifts
The family supplies Glens of Antrim which has customers including Sainsbury's and Tesco
As ever with potatoes, it is a constant fight against blight. The McCartneys are provided with herbicides, pesticides, fertilisers and seeds from Glens of Antrim.
The firm also takes an analysis of soil from each farm and calculates which varieties will grow best and give the maximum output. Marafona and Sante like sandy light dry fields, while Maris Pipers like a more heavy clay-based field.
The McCartneys apply fertiliser on drills before planting, using Grassland fertiliser. They do this because the ground is lacking, so they sow fertiliser to give it nutrients to get the best tonnage. Cutting silage over a period of a few years drains the ground so potash is needed.
Brian says: “The first thing we do after planting is burn off the grass and use about three litres/ha. We then spray for blight every week, using 2.5kg/ha. We spray nitrogen on the tops too.”
Yields vary according to different fields and varieties, but Brian says the average is 50 tonnes/ha (20 t/acre), although he has seen a yield of 70t/ha (28t/acre) in one particularly good year.
The average 50t/ha (20t/acre) yield on 81ha (200-acre) farm means a total annual volume of 4,000 tonnes.
Once harvested, potatoes are stored in their shed for up to a week before they are collected in lorries and transported to the Cushendall headquarters where they are graded, packaged and sent out to customers.
James says: “It gets rid of a lot of headaches and means we can concentrate solely on the crop. Glens of Antrim takes care of the main expenses, such as the seeds, herbicides, pesticides, fertilisers, processing, packaging and marketing. All we have to pay for is diesel. Obviously, there are also the loan repayments on the machinery, but that is it.”
To achieve the yield Glens of Antrim requires, the McCartneys have had to invest in quite a bit of machinery, predominantly through a bank loan.
Brian says the fleet includes a harvester, seven tractors, a forklift, six trailers, two destoners, two bed tillers, a planter and two smaller forklifts in the yard for loading onto lorries.
He says: “Machinery has definitely been our biggest investment.”
When asked if they have plans to rent more land, the McCartneys agree they are content as they are as any increase in land would mean they have to upgrade to a self-drilled harvester, which Brian says is too much of an outlay.
He says: “We are happy with the way things are now and do not feel we need to increase our acreage. Glens of Antrim keeps us in business almost all year. In winter, we grow about 10 acres of Kerr’s Pinks, which we sell direct to customers from the farm and we sell to a local vegetable shop in Dungiven.
“We get about 15 tonnes/acre so it is just an extra little bit of income for us.”
Another reason they do not want to upscale is because Glens of Antrim determine how much land it takes.
James says: “Glens of Antrim does this to make sure there are enough potatoes to meet demand, but to keep prices competitive too. If potatoes are more expensive one year, they always have more acres to fall back on.”
James says he likes having three months relatively free so he can concentrate on his carpentry. He has a workshop on-farm and it suits him well to have something he can happily do indoors during bad weather.
He says: “You know where you are with the system we have. Every January, we sit down with Glens of Antrim and prices are set for the year. You know what to expect and how much money will be coming in, so you can budget accordingly.
“It works well for everyone. There are no half measures and everything gets done. They put a lot of money into it so you have to make sure you come up with the goods. We put a lot of effort into it so we can get the best yields possible.”
Brian says harvesting is late this year because of the cold, wet summer. Usually, they have finished between the end of September and start of November, but Brian thinks this year they will still be gathering in November.
He says: “We have to keep at it until they are all in. The machinery will not pay for itself and we are building two houses, so we will be kept busy until ploughing starts again in March.”