After years of building up the farm business, The Jersey Royal Company is a thriving enterprise growing Jersey Royal new potatoes. Emily Ashworth meets William Church, the Director of Sales and Marketing.
It is not enough to simply produce one of the country’s most favoured potatoes, the Jersey Royal. Instead, The Jersey Royal Company strives to ensure every aspect of its business is efficiently managed, as progressive as possible and as carbon friendly as can be.
The company was formed in 2003 when several larger producing farms came together with the principal marketing companies to form a fully integrated business which grows, harvests, packs, markets and distributes Jersey Royal new potatoes from one operation covering 1,800 hectares (4,445 acres). At the outset there were 18 principles, but this soon changed as a number of farmers retired from the business, and the structure of the business changed with that.
While originally a business which grew and sold in bulk to packers on the mainland, it was not long before they started washing and packing at source, and going direct to the retailers. Now, the company washes, packs and distributes from the island, producing about 20,000 tonnes of potatoes per year.
William Church, director of sales and marketing, says: “It was a coming together of individual farming businesses to make a bigger one so that it is now a completely integrated farming and packing business.
“We do all pre-packing at source and distribute it off the island.” William, who hails from a mixed farm on the south coast, moved to Jersey in 2002 having worked for a number of roles in produce in England, Spain and Zimbabwe.
His Jersey Royal journey began working for what was the Jersey Produce Marketing Organisation, the largest potato merchant marketing business. Potatoes would go through the primary grading process and were then sold unwashed and in bulk to companies such as Greenvale, QV and Albert Bartlett.
“The landscape was very different in 2002 to what it is now,” he says. “There were four rival marketing agents selling to different packers and retailers on an exclusive basis, but then there came a crossover as companies started to compete for each other’s business.
“It was a race to the bottom and was ultimately devaluing the product, so it was the driving force behind different businesses getting together to set up The Jersey Royal Company.”
The company now employs around 400 workers at the height of the season and since the first packs went off the island, has expanded its packing capacity to keep up with demand, and in the process took on direct packing business with different retailers. Systems Along the way there have been specific changes linked with Leaf. Initially this was driven by commercial needs, with one of the founding shareholders becoming a member in 1996, and then in 2005, the business became Leaf Marque certified in order to provide Waitrose.
This involved using systems such as Integrated Farm Management, which has, he says, influenced the development of environmentally farming practices, encouraging the company to come together and focus on various aspects. “The whole landscape is now more competitive and we are continually looking at practices and efficiency,” says William.
“We actively encourage our farm managers to always look at what they are doing, and effectively, how they can be better at what they are doing.” Reducing the amount of fertiliser has been one area of focus for the company and it has successfully adapted its practices so that it now places the fertiliser in the growing zone, as opposed to broadcasting it across the whole field.
“Before, you were effectively spreading fertiliser over the whole area, including into internal headlands and on to hedges, which is not efficient,” William says.
“Jersey has inherent nitrate problems, so we developed kit in-house which places the fertiliser directly into the furrow. “We still do a lot of traditional hand planting.
“We go along and make the furrow, but the handheld machine that is making the furrow is also putting in the fertiliser. “By doing that, we have reduced our fertiliser use by about 25 per cent over the last three years.
“Jersey has got fairly high nitrate levels in the water anyway, and potatoes are nitrogen hungry, so we’ve got to spread fertiliser.
“But we need to take responsibility and work with Jersey Water and the Government to reduce inputs to end up with less of an issue. It is politically and economically driven – less fertiliser, less money.”
Another challenge is to seek out ways in which to battle ongoing problems such as potato cyst nematode, otherwise known as eelworm. “It’s one of the issues with growing potatoes year after year,” William says.
“It feeds off the roots of the plant and the potatoes can’t take up the nutrients and moisture, resulting in poorer yields.
“Previously there were a number of chemicals that you could use to suppress the eelworm activity, but that is not very environmentally friendly, and so a few years ago we started to try and understand the lifecycle of eelworm a bit more.
“We grow break crops now, one being hot mustard which gives you a whole load of biomass. Plus, when it comes into flower it provides an environment for butterflies and other wildlife.
“Then the clever part is when you mow it, it releases a natural biogas into the soil and any residual eelworm effectively gets gassed. “We have seen their population decrease over time.”
He is keen to see the company continue to explore as many techniques as possible if it means pushing business productivity forwards in a sustainable way, including individually soil sampling each field, offering a better understanding of ‘exactly what is going on everywhere’.
It is, he says, so much more than just potatoes. The Jersey Royal Company plants indoors in polytunnels in October and November, and the earliest outdoor crops are planted in late December, and in earnest from the start of January on the steep south facing coastal slopes called côtils.
The altitude and proximity to the coast means the soil is generally light and free draining and warms quickly, getting the early sun. Unsuitable for machinery, they are ploughed and planted using hand ploughs. Lighter sloping fields are planted next, followed by heavier inland areas. Harvesting begins at the end of February in limited volumes from the polytunnels and glasshouses, and outdoor crops are harvested in early April.
Potatoes reach the packhouse within an hour, and there is a full traceability system in place which allows each pack of potatoes to be traced back to the field of origin. It is, of course, a renowned name, but today’s food climate provides its own obstacles as people look less to seasonal produce and for convenience all year round.
“It might be the finest potato in the land with the strongest brand, but we are competing against very good salad crops available all year round,” William says.
“When Jersey Royals came about, they had the wow factor. As time has gone on, there are other really good varieties out there which store really well, and there has been a lot of investment in the technology of cold storage.
“You have got really good crops such as Maris Peer, Jazzy, Gemson and Nicola, which can be available 12 months of the year.
“But we’ve still got a window to go and make our money, and fortunately retailers are very supportive of the Jersey Royal.”
The company has certainly embraced technology too. It records all farm data so there is absolute transparency, down to knowing which plough was used in which field and who was driving which harvester.
“Going forwards we will be putting monitors on vans and tractors to track fuel efficiency,” William says.
One of the next big focal points is the business’s carbon footprint, and Jersey as an island is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2030.
“As a company we measured it anyway, but now were drilling down into it to work in line with the island’s aspirations,” he says. The company is now building up to its busy period at the end of April, and there will be ‘a mass of promotional activity around Jersey Royals’.
And although William has now been doing this for more than 20 years, he is still as passionate about the whole process as ever, probably even more so given the opportunities the future holds to continue improving.
“I think it is amazing when you are working with nature and we are working a potato that is more than 140 years old,” he says.
“We have got this incredible brand which people want, but you have got to maintain your competitiveness.
“When you go out and see the first crops being planted and then you harvest them, it’s exciting.
“But it’s working with the environment to try to adapt systems to keep improving.
“People come up to me and talk to me about potatoes all the time. I am like a walking billboard for Jersey Royals.”
The Jersey Royal Company achieved Leaf Marque certification in 2004 thanks to a unique partnership between LEAF and the States Assembly, Jersey’s parliament. Leaf Marque certification is being used as the delivery mechanism through which it is driving forward its sustainability objectives.
All the island’s dairy and arable farmers are now Leaf Marque certified. The Leaf Marque is an environmental assurance system recognising more sustainably farmed products and is underpinned by the sustainable farming principles of Integrated Farm Management (IFM), a whole farm business approach which uses the best of modern technology and traditional methods to deliver more sustainable farming.
IFM is made up of nine sections, which together address the entire farm business. These include soil and water management, pollution control, crop health and protection, animal welfare, community engagement, energy efficiency and landscape and nature conservation. Read more about the Leaf Marque and Leaf’s work with Jersey farmers at Leafuk.org