Husband and wife team Lucy and Anthony Carroll swapped conventional for the unusual and created an innovative business growing heritage potatoes. Marie Claire Kidd speaks to the winners of last year’s British Farming Awards Arable Innovator of the Year.
Growing potatoes has turned out to be quite an adventure for Anthony and Lucy Carroll.
Under their brand – Carroll’s Heritage Potatoes – they grow a range of 17 heritage potato varieties at Tiptoe Farm, a LEAF Marque demonstration farm on Northumberland’s River Till.
The farm also features ancient woodland, a newly-restored wildlife pond and the presence of a high conservation concern, including the song thrush, yellowhammer and willow tit.
Six-metre wide grass strips around the field edges are sown with herbs and flowers to encourage bees and produce seeds for birds and, as testament to this, the farm was named Most Beautiful Farm in Britain in 2006.
The couple started Carroll’s Heritage Potatoes out of disillusionment with the way they were farming potatoes.
They were growing modern varieties, with the emphasis on volume and regularity. The requirement was to produce white, round potatoes and not always to achieve great flavour or cooking qualities.
In 2000 they experimented with a new approach, growing 0.4 hectares of four older varieties; Arran Victory 1916 , Pink Fir Apple 1850, Red Duke of York 1942 and Red King Edward 1916.
They took the resulting crop to Berwick-upon-Tweed farmers’ market and received a positive response. And so their new company was born.
Some of the older varieties do not yield well and have more scab and problems with 'ugly potatoes.
Mrs Carroll focused on the marketing – a particular challenge due to the small amounts they were producing – while Mr Carroll focused on the growing, confronting the challenges brought about by low yields, poor resistance to blight and strange shapes and sizes.
Demand was so high that, despite these challenges, each year since they have increased the amount of heritage potatoes they produce.
Mr Carroll says: “We started small and we have built it up. It was time rather than money we invested at the beginning.
“There was a huge number of things we found we had to do. You don’t know the questions you want to ask until you find out you don’t know.”
From choosing the right computer package to learning how to keep client records, the Carrolls found themselves on a huge learning curve.
“The big thing is not to be afraid to fail,” he adds. “To learn not to do something is positive. It’s like putting your hand in the fire. You do that once and learn not to do it again.
“Because I wasn’t with a company nobody told me I couldn’t do it. We haven’t had that negative hangover you can get, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Mr Carroll buys some of his seed potatoes and plants some of his own. These old varieties boast unusual flavours, textures, colours and shapes and each one has its own history, but they present new problems.
The biggest challenge is potato blight. “They’re not robust like modern varieties,” says Mr Carroll. “These varieties have all been left behind for various reasons.
“Some of them are 160 years old. They have absolutely no resistance, so you have to use the proprietary products and go to the fields frequently.”
Last year he finished planting by the end of April. This year planting will go into May because the weather has been so wet.
“The lighter soils warm up quickly, but some of our heavier soils are taking a long time to dry out,” he says.
Winning last year’s Arable Innovator of the Year award, at the British Farming Awards, has helped the Carrolls to keep pushing forward. “It was very exciting,” says Mrs Carroll. “It was rewarding because we’ve worked so hard and it’s our passion.
“It was nice to be able to show off to our customers and helps them understand our credibility. It gives us that extra push and elation to move forward and that is what we’re doing.
“We’re never perfect but we try really hard to be. It gives them confidence we’re a solid company and we do what we say, and we’re always striving for improvement. To have that recognition for innovation is very exciting. We do innovate, all the time.”
To enter the 2016 Arable Innovator of the Award visit www.britishfarmingawards.co.uk
Potatoes are grown on rotation with wheat, barley, oats and beans, planting one year in six or seven. As with any conventional crop, he analyses the field and fertilises to the normal requirements for potatoes.
Irrigation comes via from the river, which flows through the farm. Mrs Carroll says: “We’re very fortunate to have the river. We don’t pour water on the land. It’s all measured by probes in the fields and the computer tells us how much we need to use, so no water is wasted.”
The varieties are matched to the various soil types on the farm, planting small potatoes in lighter soils and bigger potatoes in heavier soils.
“You can’t grow them cheaply because you grow less, even with the same inputs,” he says. “I can grow Maris Piper next to them and grow three times the amount.
“They’re expressing their biological best and producing what they are genetically capable of producing. But just because they produce a smaller crop than a conventional potato doesn’t mean you can put less inputs on them.”
As well as yields significantly lower than those of modern varieties, the heritage potatoes can express significant variation. “You can have a good year one year and the next year it will be shocking, going down to single figures,” says Mr Carroll.
The potatoes are harvested mechanically, with conventional equipment, which also presents issues.
“They are unusual shapes and the way they grow is unusual. It makes life interesting. Our driver shakes his head when he plants them and even more when he harvests them.”
The potatoes are placed in a cold store and, out of storage, they last a month or so if unwashed, although some customers like them to be washed and use them more quickly.
The potatoes do not go through the wholesale market as most people have not heard of the varieties.
“We always try and plant for our market, but the problem is we’re always a year behind,” Mrs Carroll adds.
“We are not producing a commodity product. They’re difficult to grow and it’s a complex business.
Three varieties of potatoes grown by the Carrolls (clockwise from top): Shetland Black, Salad Blue and Highland Burgandy
“They don’t yield well and they’re susceptible to disease. We’re grading out more. There are more scabs and more problems with ugly potatoes.
“But we’ve done a lot of research. It’s 10 years now and we know which ones work and which ones are wanted and which are not.”
With the varieties chosen, the pair are now developing their packing system and purchasing a new packer and a new washer. There are also plans to improve our storage system.
“We’re at that crossroads where we need to become more efficient in order to supply the demand and make the most of our people and resources.
“The only supermarket we work with is Booths and we have a good relationship because we work directly with them.”
As the business is set to grow, future plans include the growth of organic heritage potatoes, and half their land is currently being converted to organic status.
“We think there’s a market for them, but for now we’re growing them conventionally,” he says.
“It’s quite exciting going back to school, having done conventional farming for 30 years. I’ve got a lot of questions. It’s a lot more research and development.”