Participants in AHDB Potatoes’ current Next Generation programme (2015/16) visited Old Fargie Farm in Perth, which is one of three farms providing seed to Caithness Potatoes, where they heard about the company’s approach to producing and marketing Scottish seed potatoes.
Caithness Potatoes is a leading seed potato producer and exporter. Based in Scotland, the business benefits from the disease-free climate and produces about 20,000-30,000 tonnes of seed potatoes per year.
In common with many potato growers, the company’s biggest challenge has been market volatility.
Stephen Hole, sales and logistics manager at the company, said: “We are in a very volatile business. Much like the ware industry, prices go from £30 per tonne to £500/t. It is a real rollercoaster industry, but that is what makes it interesting.”
Caithness Potatoes is a family business, which Mr Hole believes is a huge benefit. “It is very much a family affair, which means decisions get made, markets get developed and customers are treated as individuals not as a number,” he said.
The grading line is primarily for seed potatoes and is capable of grading up to 250 tonnes per day. It comprises the following stages:
After market volatility, the diverse range of overseas markets Caithness Potatoes supplies also poses a further challenge, but have, in turn, allowed the business to expand to become one of the biggest seed potato producers in the UK.
Mr Hole said: “Sixty five per cent of our business is overseas. The main countries we supply to include Egypt, Israel, Morocco, Spain and the Canaries.
“Egypt is the biggest one for us and indeed for UK exports in general. Israel are also very important customers, they are very particular about what they want.
“We are just about to start supplying Morocco which is price sensitive but still very quality conscious.”
For customers further afield, including those in New Zealand and Australia, the team at Caithness Potatoes makes alternative arrangements, such as licensing production, to enable the company’s products to be sold and marketed.
Different countries have different requirements in terms of packaging and quality standards and part of Caithness Potatoes’ success is its ability to accommodate the demands of various markets.
For example, a lot of exported product has to be supplied in small bags because many of the countries the company deals with do not have the equipment to handle bulk containers.
"Pallets also have to be different specs for different countries because of concern about disease in the timber. For example, some are heat-treated as they are believed to be safer,” said Mr Hole.
Since most North African and Middle Eastern countries plant potatoes in January, seed potatoes are required before the New Year and so Caithness Potatoes relies on an early harvest.
Mr Hole said: “A lot of our export markets will be planting potatoes in January, therefore they want seed before that. That means it has to leave here by the end of November by the very latest, so getting an early harvest to allow the potatoes to sit for a month is crucial.”