One of the busiest exhibitors at BP2017 in Harrogate was McCain Foods (GB) Ltd. The company had an important message for its contract growers and the wider potato industry following the recent announcement of £100m worth of investment for its Yorkshire factory and the site at Whittlesey near Peterborough. DAVID MOSSMAN reports.
Over the next 18 months McCain’s Scarborough plant will undergo a process of renewal; the first phase is already well underway and storage of finished product has been contracted out to external freezer facilities to make way for a rolling programme of refurbishment. Agriculture director, Daniel Metheringham, told Potato Review that disruption for the company and its growers will be kept to a minimum.
A new intake facility will change the way raw materials are brought into the factory and prepared for peeling, chipping, cooking and freezing. The key upgrade here will be the installation of computerised optical grading systems designed to sort tubers accurately according to length, to simplify the process on farm and minimise waste throughout the supply chain.
It is this element of the renewal programme that will have the most direct impact on UK growers who supply the company with potatoes straight off the field and out of store. From July 2019 they will no longer be expected to size grade their crops prior to despatch, instead loading directly into bulkers with sizing, cleaning and defect removal taking place when they arrive at the factory.
On the one hand this means savings on time spent handling crops before they leave the farm but for some growers it may also mean replacing existing equipment. Machinery manufacturers including Tong Engineering, Niagri, Downs and Grimme UK have been gearing up to meet demand for new field loaders and transfer trailers.
At first sight this move by McCain’s appears to run counter to a trend seen in recent years whereby end users have passed handling costs and risks down the supply chain to growers. For Daniel Metheringham there are clear advantages these changes and he is confident that both sides will see the benefits.
‘By installing new state-of-the-art technology at our factories, we are able to increase in the amount of useable crop and reduced waste as we’ll be simplifying the whole process, he explains. ‘There are a lot of inefficiencies on farm where a grower will split a crop to meet our scheduling requirements. Moving forward, growers won’t need to do that as they’ll be loading the whole crop and we’ll be grading at the factory.
‘The key benefit to this change is a simplification on farm, especially where there are questions over labour requirements,’ he adds. ‘That certainly proved to be the case during the last harvesting period where it was a challenge to get hold of good, reliable grading staff. If we can help reduce that requirement by moving the problem to the factory, and using technology to solve it, that has to be the right way of tackling it.’
Read the full article in our Jan/Feb edition
Brexit dismay, retail trends and the next generation
While MPs were debating an amendment to the EU withdrawal bill last December the opening speaker at the annual CUPGRA* conference was criticising the government’s confused approach and Defra’s failure to carry out a proper assessment of the likely impact upon agriculture.
AHDB chairman Peter Kendall risked the disapproval of his political masters when he spoke out against an apparent lack of Brexit planning in Westminster. The former president of the NFU admitted that he had been firmly in the remain camp in the run up to the 2016 referendum; he described his attendance at a gathering intended to be a celebration as ‘probably the worst party I have ever been to.’
Having offered this frank admission about where he stood on departure from the EU, he told his audience: ‘I am disappointed with where we are going but we have to move on. As an industry we will face a different environment and for me the starting point is that we need to own up to where British agriculture sits. Year on year, our productivity is growing slower than our key competitors.’
Mr Kendall referred to the results of AHBD research which had looked at production costs for wheat in the UK, Europe and beyond. ‘Most arable farmers I meet just don’t want to believe that we are only keeping our heads above water,’ he observed. ‘We are probably the highest cost producers and we’re not making the returns that our competitors are making elsewhere. That to me is a really important – we need to be honest with ourselves about the challenges we face.’
Farmers must also keep up with new patterns of consumption, he urged. He spoke about dietary changes and the growth in the number of households with one or two people, the increasing reliance on microwave ovens and the decline in red meat consumption which is having a knock-on effect for potatoes and fresh vegetables.
‘Consumers are changing and we have an ageing population,’ he said. ‘People’s habits are changing and there are implications for all of us; if we don’t position ourselves in a way that we think about consumers then we are going to have more challenges than just the productivity one I alluded to at the start.
‘I just do not see where many of the products we’re producing fit in with the snack you grab at breakfast time or the sandwich you pick up at the motorway service station. How do we make sure that our products are relevant to those consumers – how do we dovetail into what they want as we look to the future post-Brexit.’
Mr Kendall had more to say about the potential impact of the decision to leave Europe and talked of ‘massive speculation’ still surrounding the process. ‘Who knows where this will end up, it could be a general election it could be Cabinet reshuffles – and as Phillip Hammond said last week, the Cabinet hasn’t even decided yet where the landing point is.
‘Now we hear that Defra hasn’t done any assessments of the impact on British agriculture. I find that breathtaking – this is one of the industries which will be most affected by Brexit. I suspect that it doesn’t look great and the backdrop to the messages we are getting from senior politicians, that things are going to be OK, is that they don’t want to admit to some of the challenges we have. But that should not stop us as an industry from trying to prepare ourselves for different outcomes.’
* Cambridge University Potato Growers Research Association.
Read the full article in our Jan/Feb edition
Industry recognition for Mike Storey
AHDB’s Dr Mike Storey has been awarded the John Green Memorial Trophy for his exceptional contribution to the British potato industry. He received the award at CUPGRA’s annual Potato Barons conference dinner in December. CUPGRA President John Chinn said: ‘For the past 35 years Mike has been a driving force in research and innovation within our potato industry. The award celebrates his knowledge of the potato crop, his skills in knowledge transfer and his influence and contribution to our industry through the translation of applied science.’ Dr Storey responded: ‘I am delighted with this award, especially as it’s from growers recognising the importance of robust and reliable research and knowledge exchange.’
The trophy is named after CUPGRA founder John Green (Greens of Soham). Dr Storey is only the second recipient of the award which was first given in 2014 to Eric Allen, former director of Cambridge University Farm.
Read the full report on the 2017 CUPGRA conference in our Jan/Feb edition