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The seed exporter’s tale

Talking to Scottish seed suppliers about revisions to the classification scheme for our July/August edition set SALLY SMITH thinking about the challenges of trading in exotic and at times unpredictable markets. Most weeks of the year someone from Scotland’s seed potato industry will be doing business in a far-flung country somewhere in the world.

The potato land is 2000 metres up on the side of a volcano. Sandy McGowan has climbed precipitous slopes to get there because that’s where the Indonesians grow potatoes.  ‘The soil is rich and fertile, the climate temperate, and the crops impressive,’ he explains, conceding though that the fields are necessarily small and husbandry almost entirely hand labour; as a result numerous growers are required, over 2000 to supply just one crisping plant, for example.

All a very far cry from the Cambridgeshire Fens where he was meeting growers the following week, or the banks of the Nile where he had gone a few months earlier.

Along with all his competitors in the Scottish seed industry, Grampian Growers’ general manager is in no doubt that marketing has to be a personal business, despite the existence of Skype and the internet. ‘You’ve got to be there, meeting the farmers, seeing the growing conditions, assessing the crop – even if that means climbing a volcano.

‘Farmers speak much the same language wherever they are in the world.  To get anywhere with marketing, at some stage you have to be in the field with them. The same personal contact is vital for the importers and agents, indeed all involved. But I’m not denying that for me the travelling is fantastic and because you are going to a country’s agricultural area you see the parts the tourist never sees.’

He accepts that overseas travel is not without risk at times. ‘ You can’t be blasé but I have never felt threatened, not even five months after the Arab Spring erupted. The atmosphere was slightly more tense but my customers carried on as usual, and so did I.’

Read the full story in our Sept/Oct edition

Careful planning improves soil fertility

Pigs tend to follow potatoes in the rotation at Wantisden Hall Farms in Suffolk because they play an important role in building organic matter and controlling volunteers, manager Tim Pratt told HEATHER BRIGGS when she visited the innovative LEAF demonstration farm.

Situated less than 10 miles from the coast near Woodbridge, Wantisden Hall Farms has predominantly sandy soils with poor organic matter so putting nutrients back is a priority. For this reason Tim Pratt took the decision to rent land to an outdoor pig-farmer. ‘Crops such as potatoes and onions can be hard on the ground, so a carefully planned rotation with other less demanding crops such as rye, interspersed with vegetables, helps maintain healthy soils,’ he says.

‘I started thinking about the benefits from having pigs in the rotation thanks to meeting with LEAF livestock farmers, adapting their system so it would work here on the farm. Pigs usually spend two years in each field and although when the weather is wet it can look a bit of a muddy mess, we are seeing real improvements in soil organic matter.’

The farm also faces challenges from PCN, with soil sample analyses showing both Globodera pallida and G. rostochiensis to contend with. Controlling volunteers, which can exacerbate this problem, is therefore crucial to the farm and the pigs make short work of them. Attention to detail can make all the difference to success; often volunteers growing by fence posts can be just out of reach for the pigs, so the fence is moved by about a metre every so often to ensure that they can access and eat them.

Apart from the pigs, 200 Dorset ewes make the most of crop residues and grassland introduced within the HLS agreement; they are also used to graze off spring greens. Other measures used to keep soils healthy include cover crops, with black oats and vetch planted in mid-July.

Water is of increasing concern. Wantisden Hall has a spring-fed reservoir which is one of the first to be restricted when levels are low. ‘The Environment Agency should look at individual cases rather than taking the broad-brush approach,’ says Mr Pratt who has obtained permission to collect run-off from a disused airfield nearby. ‘This works really well in a wet winter,’ he notes. Before use, the water is subjected to tests for E. Coli and Salmonella and all the farm’s water supplies are checked monthly to ensure that they are within accepted limits.

Read the full story in our Sept/Oct edition

Major milestone for popular harvester

Mark Green’s new harvester has been tackling some challenging and varied soils near Hereford. He has run Grimme machines at Ditton Farm, St Owens Cross, for as long as he can remember, starting with a GZ to which he retrofitted the first twin MultiSep cleaning module.

Ditton Farm’s Grimme fleet now includes three triple bed tillers, two trailed GT harvesters and a self-propelled Varitron 270 bunker machine. The latest addition just happens to be the 2000th GT170 to come off the production line at Damme near Osnabrück in the north-west German state of Lower Saxony.

  1. M., J. M. and M. F. Green and Sons grows in excess of 15000 tonnes of potatoes for crisping and chipping. Around 50% of the crop is moved straight off the field and the other half goes into controlled temperature storage. Average yield on the medium light loam soils is around 16–18 tonnes/acre (around 40 tonnes/hectare). The total acreage has been reduced recently because of the need to travel further away from the farm to find good quality land.

Planting starts in mid-March and is normally finished by the middle of May. Lifting gets underway at the beginning of July and ends in the middle of October.

‘We bought our first self-propelled Varitron in 2012 through local dealer Len Evans to assist our existing GT harvester in the field during the severe wet weather conditions at the time,’ recalls Mr Green. ‘It’s a great insurance against wet weather, and although the GT with wheel drive means we can still harvest in all but the very worst weather conditions, it’s our 14 tonne Bailey trailers running alongside that become the problem in the wet.’

The new GT170 was bought this year as the farm’s principal harvester. ‘Self-propelled machines are not cheap to run and whilst our strategy at the time of purchasing ours was to use it as the main harvester, our preference going forward is to use it to support the trailed GT when we are under delivery pressure or for back-up in challenging lifting conditions,’ he explains.

‘We are trying to reduce running costs so we think it’s the right approach to keep the self-propelled as back up and for when it’s really wet,’ says Mr Green. ‘It’s basically a role reversal. We used to run it with two drivers on 10-hour shifts, but the GT is proven technology and is reliable so we think this approach will keep costs under control.

The new GT170 has a short digging web followed by a main web with hydraulically adjusted speed and agitation providing infinite control. This is ideal for lifting in challenging conditions. Mr Green says the haulm rollers that work in combination with a twin MultiSep do an excellent job of gently clearing out vegetation, stones and clods, without causing bruising and scuffing.

‘The quality of the crop depends largely on how it is presented to the harvester,’ he explains. ‘The short digging web is so efficient that it takes the stress off the main web and this ultimately leads to less damage, better cleaning and higher output. The forward speed of the GT is much higher than other trailed harvesters, which is such a key factor when delivering to order.’

Read the full story in our Sept/Oct edition

Drone mapping confirms crop health issues

Gary Naylor bought his first professional level drone to provide him with a new angle on his photography business. It wasn’t long before the former farm manager began to investigate wider applications for potatoes and a range of other crops.

Gary Naylor demonstrates his drone in a crop of Maris Peer at Heygate Farms, Swaffham, Norfolk.

Drone technology has progressed in leaps and bounds to incorporate high resolution, self-calibrating cameras, automated flight paths using GPS guidance systems and ‘orthomosaic’ software which stitches together multiple images to provide accurate, repeatable aerial mapping.
Anyone can go out and purchase a drone – a basic model which will give a reasonable image of a growing crop can be picked up for less than £100 – but offering a useful service to farmers (while operating within strict safety rules laid down by the Civil Aviation Authority) requires a serious investment in equipment, training and technical support.
Gary Naylor quickly recognised the benefits of using a ‘quadracopter’ drone when it came to capturing birds-eye photographic images of agricultural machinery at work, including potato harvesters. Taking his involvement to the next level, however, meant a trip to the United States to meet software developers and long hours teaching himself the intricacies of mapping functions and the analysis and interpretation of results. Only then could he begin engage with farmers and set them thinking about what he might do for them.

It takes just a few minutes for Mr Naylor to unpack the equipment, attach the rotors to the drone and calibrate the camera and navigation systems. A tablet which displays live images, flight data and safety warnings is mounted on a tripod that doubles up for static photography.

Drone altitude will typically be in the region of 60 to100 metres, well within the CAA’s 120-metre maximum height limit to keep it clear of small aircraft. Operators are also required to observe within a 500-metre line of sight for the purposes of collision avoidance. Flying times are dictated largely by battery life though wind speed and direction can reduce the drone’s range. A typical flight of 15–20 minutes will allow Mr Naylor to cover an average-sized potato field but there are times when strong winds or wet conditions mean that the drone stays in the back of the truck.
‘There is a bit of set up involved but it does fly very reliably and every image is geo-referenced which means that when you import it into software such as GoogleEarth, Pear or Gatekeeper and the map will automatically position itself in the right place,’ says Mr Naylor. ‘Measurements are very accurate and if we flew this field here, for example, the drone would take lots of overlapping pictures which are compatible with these other platforms. Not only would you see a problem in the crop but you can also create and export a file and it’s there forever.
‘What I am saying to growers is that it is real time, it is repeatable and if we do find something in a field then the flight plan can be copied and I can do exactly the same again next week. I can share the orthomosaic data with the grower and one set of images can also be used to also create a terrain map, a plant health map or a 3D model.’

Wolds growers step up to the mark

WCM’s list of shareholders and contract growers includes some of the most highly respected potato producers in East Yorkshire – names such as Soanes, Kendall, JSR and Stockdale. What’s so special about the seed they produce on the chalky soils between the Vale of Pickering and the Humber?

WCM’s Chris Yardley and David Birks checking progress on the company’s variety trials field at Market Weighton near York.

Certified seed potatoes grown on the Yorkshire Wolds are subject to phytosanitary standards which are identical in most respects to those which apply north of the border. Field inspections and grading tolerances are essentially the same and are governed by rules which were designed to harmonise seed health standards across the European Union. Yorkshire producers, just like their counterparts in Scotland, are required to have potato land tested for the presence of PCN and their crops are subject to statutory inspections during the growing season and prior to sale. Growers in both countries have signed up to the Safe Haven scheme, the only significant difference being the proviso that seed produced in Yorkshire cannot then be replanted in the Scottish protected region.

Seed growers face much the same challenges whether they are located in Aberdeenshire, Tayside or East Yorkshire, with the principal considerations being the transmission of aphid-borne viruses and the potential spread of soft rot bacteria. According to WCM’s David Burks and Chris Yardley, the growers they deal with have two major advantages over the Scots – climate and soil type.

Judicious use of aphicides deals with the first problem while the combination of free draining soils and early harvest dates helps to reduce the risk of blackleg and powdery scab. They also point out that there is no shortage of clean land which comes with little or no history of potato production. This is due, in part, to the fact that thin soils with a high stone content are not always well suited to ware production; growers in some areas around Driffield and down towards the Humber estuary simply can’t produce the tonnages required for a commercial crop on what might be described as ‘marginal’ potato land. Some have, however, been persuaded that seed production is a better bet and WCM’s certified seed area is currently around 500 hectares, two thirds of which was already sold by the time this season’s crops were first inspected by FERA.
The reputation of Yorkshire seed has grown in recent years and WCM can take some of the credit as potato breeders have entrusted the grower group with the multiplication of their new varieties. The company’s annual trials day at Shiptonthorpe near Market Weighton is now an established part of the summer calendar with more than 100 demonstration plots this year laid out alongside a field-scale selection of processing and prepacking varieties.
Growing seed crops successfully is all about the fundamentals, technical director Chris Yardley insists. ‘It’s about climate, soil type, storage and grading.’ Marketing manager David Burks agrees and reckons it has a lot to do with the weather at the time of harvesting. ‘We always harvest seed when it has dry feet – sometimes growers in Scotland simply don’t have that advantage.’
‘We usually manage to plant into warm soils and aphids are generally not an issue,’ says Mr Yardley. ‘We’ve virus tested 300 or more samples over the years and we’ve only had two crops where we have seen a problem. There is a myth that you can’t grow virus-free stocks outside Scotland.
‘We do have aphids,’ he admits, ‘but we manage them correctly. We don’t normally have an issue with powdery scab and our seed crops are generally clean on blackleg. Storage tends to be newer here with good ventilation capacity and when it comes to grading we can turn things around quickly so that we don’t leave people waiting – but we do ask for two weeks’ notice.

New options for easier transport

Tong Engineering has announced new features on its popular Fieldloader, including an automatic ‘transport-mode’ option which renders the machine more compact on the road. The Fieldloader is designed to provide effective in-field crop cleaning and inspection straight off the harvester with direct loading into bulker lorries.
‘Our Fieldloader is increasingly popular with growers as it means that soil is removed in the field and kept off the public roads,’ explains export sales manager Charlie Rich. ‘Transport is significantly reduced as there is a no need to move crop to a central yard or location. It significantly cuts handling times, allowing growers to meet tight deadlines and deliver crop in optimum condition straight from the field.’

Grimme’s latest field loader handling carrots for Huntapac.

Mr Rich says one of the key benefits of the Fieldloader is the fact that it incorporates a heavy duty infeed hopper, crop cleaner, inspection area and integrated extending elevator all in one mobile unit while the new options are set to offer easier movement across the farm.
‘While some growers choose to operate the Fieldloader in the yard, many customers move the machine between fields. With this in mind we have designed a model which incorporates a powered elevator section that automatically retracts back under the cleaning and inspecting sections of the machine, making the unit as short as possible when towing on the road. Foldable conveyors are also a feature on the new design to make it as narrow as possible too. The standard Fieldloader is around 22 metres long when fully operational but reduces to just under 15 metres when in transport-mode. Further options including full suspension, brakes, machine lighting and steering where required.’
Farming over 10,000 acres of root crops, barley and rye, Elveden Farms near Thetford on the Norfolk/Suffolk border is currently operating a Fieldloader which was custom-built for carrot and onion crops. To keep up with demand and achieve higher throughputs, the company has ordered a second system, complete with the new transport-mode options, for use on all root crops including potatoes. Farm manager Andrew Francis told Potato Review: ‘Our original Fieldloader has streamlined post-harvest crop handling times and has allowed us to achieve a very quick turnaround from field to bulker lorries. The second machine is now in production and we look forward to increasing our capacity even further.’

Grimme’s CleanLoader is new to the UK market but is built around the RH24-60 hopper which has been used for a number of years in the company’s mobile farm graders. It features two sets of coil cleaners, one for clod removal, the second for pre-grading, each with a telescopic cross-conveyor mounted underneath the machine to remove soil and trash. There is room for four pickers on the inspection table which has a trash conveyor on either side and twin hedgehog belts to carry the crop onto the cart elevator and into the waiting trailer.
The elevator has a 25-degree (6.5 metre) pivot range and a 7-metre loading length which means it is possible to leave the trailer off the field or to discharge crop over a hedge or ditch. It has a swan’s neck section which will reach down into the trailer or bulker to minimise the drop while still maintaining a loading height of 6.5 metres. For transport the tandem axle machine has hydraulic brakes, road lights and a detachable tow bar.

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