'Tatty' talk

EAST LOTHIAN, Scotland -- Luffness Mains farm has been growing "tatties" -- the United Kingdom word for potatoes -- since 1914. Owner Allan Stevenson, chairman of the Potato Council of the United Kingdom, hosted a farm tour as part of the commerc...

Geert Knottenbelt
Geert Knottenbelt is the farm manager at Luffness Mains, a farm at Aberlady, near East Lothian, Scotland. The farm specializes in prepack and small potatoes, most marketed through Greenvale AP, which supplies Tesco and other big food chains. (Mikkel Pates, Agweek staff)

EAST LOTHIAN, Scotland -- Luffness Mains farm has been growing "tatties" -- the United Kingdom word for potatoes -- since 1914.

Owner Allan Stevenson, chairman of the Potato Council of the United Kingdom, hosted a farm tour as part of the commercial/consumer tours associated with the World Potato Congress, May 27 to 30 in Edinburgh, Scotland. The farm produces crops on 1,500 acres, near the city of East Lothian, about 20 miles from Edinburgh. The address is historic Aberlady, near the famous Firth of Forth -- a fjord of the River Forth, as it flows into the North Sea -- near East Lothian, an area noted worldwide for golf courses with names like Muirfield and Archerfield.

It's "just a small farm," Stevenson is quick to say, but it deals in high-value "salad" potatoes, and the early production that is so valued by the country's biggest potato brokers and marketers. Luffness Mains is quite low near sea level.

At first blush, Stevenson's resume is similar to an upper Great Plains farmer in the United States. His grandfather, also Allan Stevenson, came here from Ayrshire region, where the family had grown potatoes since the 1800s. He grew up and was educated in Edinburgh. He's been involved in the family-owned farm for more than 23 years.

But in many ways, Stevenson is different from your typical upper Great Plains farmer.


He owns the farm, but explained that he works here about one day a week. During a two-hour tour of his farm headquarters, he was quick to hand over the microphone to Geert Knottenbelt, who heads a staff of seven people.

Stevenson holds business degrees from Edinburgh University, served in marketing, commercial and management directorships for various food service, engineering and manufacturing companies. He's the chairman of the Potato Council, but he also chairs two pension funds in London. He is on the board of the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, the plant science and soils institute, and he has another charity board, and has nonexecutive directorships in technology, project management and real estate companies.

"Everything I earn on my four days a week gets wasted growing potatoes," Stevenson said, half-joking.

Main crop

Knottenbelt said potatoes are the principal crop at Luffness Mains.

Spuds here are rotated with winter and spring wheat. They grow nine varieties for in-season selling and out of cold storage, and can supply through the entire year. Their main customer is Greenvale AP, which packs potatoes for major retailers, including Tesco, the biggest supermarket chain in the land.

With consulting agronomist Eric Anderson standing in a pit, Knottenbelt went through the whole cultivation process -- preparation, plowing in the right conditions, the right depth, subsequent preparation for the potato crop.

Potatoes are mostly irrigated with more precise sprinkler irrigation. Nearly half of their potatoes -- about 250 acres -- are in salad potatoes.


"It's quite difficult to manage the water," Knottenbelt said. Across the road, they were already irrigating on May 30, but only 10 days prior, the farm was unable to plant because of a surplus of water. Field moisture goes up and down quickly.

It seems clear that Knottenbelt is a no-nonsense person. "There's no excuse for not knowing the facts in farming; there's no gray area," he said. "And there's no excuse for blaming the weather."

The smaller potatoes are worth more than 30 cents a pound, where potatoes more than 42 millimeters in diameter (1.6 inches) are worth a third of that. "We've got to keep the size down; we're not growing for yield," Stevenson said. Salad potato crop yields start at 8 tons an acre, and will climb steadily as the season progresses.

Average, unruly weather

This year's planting was expected to end by June 1 -- about three weeks later than ever before. Knottenbelt noted that the crop would not be up and grown into a canopy at the peak of mid-summer light.

The farm went from a wet harvest into a wet spring. The farm received 10 percent of historic average rainfall in March but then three times the normal rainfall in April. They monitor soil moisture for irrigation at 4, 8 and 12 inch depths.

"Every Sunday night, you listen to the BBC and there seems to be another weather record broken again in the U.K.," with temperatures in the 80s in the Highlands in late April, followed by 14 degrees with snow the next week, and planters standing in up to 4 inches14 degrees with snow the next week, and planters standing in up to 4 inches of snow, Knottenbelt said.

This year, they started planting March 17 and had only 500 acres planted by May 30 -- far short of the 25 acres a day they had projected for planting the crop.


"It is frustrating," Knottenbelt said, but added, "We're not on our own."

Knottenbelt and Stevenson said the farm has faced two challenging weather years in a row, which is tricky when they are trying to hit early market schedules. Greenvale starts its domestic potato season in early April, pulling "Jersey Royal" potatoes from Jersey, an island dependency off the coast of Normandy, in France. In by mid-May, potatoes from Cornwall, a southwestern England county, then Ayrshire, in southwest and eastern Scotland, are shipped to market.

The U.K. grades to a high standard on fresh produce. Any sort of blemish puts potatoes into a second-rate category. That's good, but also means a lot of potatoes that might have been consumed go into a secondary category.

Stevenson works closely with Tesco. This year, he was literally the face of potatoes -- serving as a farmer/model for cardboard cutouts at Tesco stores as they launch the new potato season in cooperation with the packer Greenvale AP. "These are things we're trying to do to get close to our customer."

A different world

U.K. farming is somewhat different than in North America.

Potatoes are grown once every five years. Unlike U.S. and Canada-style cultivation, where farmers go in with a tine-type cultivator or set of disks in the spring, the Scottish farmers use stone separators.

On a field that has been plowed in autumn, the Scots will go in with a stone separator to remove the stones and clods in the top 20 inches or so. The machine places the stones into a windrow which goes under the wheel or "wheeling" of the stone separator, where they'll stay all season.

Next, they put up a deep soil ridge and plant into that ridge.

The stones are never removed. When the farmers cultivate after the potato crop to plant canola or whatever, the stones are redistributed. The farmers see the stones having a function in the field for warming the soil, and moisture infiltration. They also provide traction at harvest, and some water infiltration.

Luffness Mains plants crops under a white, nylon fabric "fleece," which helps warm the temperature under the potatoes. The seed potatoes are "chitted," or pre-sprouted, to get started early. The farm put fleece on March 17-planted crops and took it off on May 21, allowing the crop to gather degree days even in low temperatures. They figure it will increase production by some 2 tons an acre. The fleece cost and the work to get it on and off is roughly $360 per acre, but the increase in yield will more than offset it. Some farms reuse the fleece, but Luffness simply sends it to be recycled.

Harvest must be done by Oct. 15, because of the weather. Edinburgh is 250 miles north of London and is at the same latitude as Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, he notes. The sun goes down at 10:30 p.m. and comes up at about 2:30 a.m., in June. "That's why we grow very fast in the summer," Knottenbelt said. "I want a full canopy on the longest day."

Greenvale has a little flexibility with retailers, but has to give them an idea of when they'll be able to start supplying the crop. Luffness potatoes were aimed at the week of June 11 to start with "Local First for Fresh" markets. Luffness is committed to supply up to 3,000 tons of new potatoes. It will start marketing them larger, but will end up selling 80 percent of its potatoes below 42 millimeters in diameter -- the small salad potatoes.

Potatoes are run over a grader and go into 1-ton wooden boxes in the field, which are taken into a 1,500-ton refrigerated storage. That's different than in the U.S., where potatoes generally are stored in bulk.

Environmental concerns

Conservation and environmental issues are important to Luffness, both from an economic standpoint and as a public perception issue.

Among other things, the farm bought four fuel-efficient New Holland tractors, saving up to 10 to 15 percent on fuel costs, says Eric Anderson, a consultant with Scottish Agronomy Ltd., which works with the farm.

The potato crop takes about 11 liters of fuel per ton, including four liters for cultivating to get the crop into the ground. At times, up to half of the total fuel used to grow an acre of potatoes is spent in seedbed preparation. "It's no good to me or my son to say we can't do anything about that. That's a challenge for us to control," Knottenbelt said.

Knottenbelt noted that in a day's planting, the farm spends the equivalent of $1,865 on fuel but $1,615 on labor. He'd like to get the fuel costs down to the labor costs. He says the farm needs young workers who have an appetite to watch fuel consumption, and machines that use less fuel.

They are using wind turbines to power some of the refrigeration units, and get 27 pence (42 cents) per kilowatt for any power exported into the grid. They pay 6 pence (9 cents) per kilowatt hour for power they buy from the grid.

Last year, the farm had to leave more soil on the potatoes to achieve the needed skin quality. The farm acquired a new grader to take the soil out of the potatoes. Every motor on the graders runs at variable speeds. They run as slow as needed to save on the skins, but also to save power.

The farm is accredited by Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF) a government-supported initiative that pays farmers to integrate commercial production with environmental conservation, and has won numerous awards for conservation. It pays attention to biodiversity, and list local priority species including the barn owl, a Lapwing bird and the common frog. It has specific inventory and management plans for all of its hedgerow and water courses.

Like farmers everywhere, Stevenson sees the risk and costs of his farming, and is unusually frank about it. He says that in the past three years or so, he's invested 2 million British pounds ($3.1 million) in the operation.

That includes a $1.5 million "cold store" or cold storage building. He's spent $233,100 on boxes and $280,000 on a potato grader. To stay in the game as a grower, there have to be investments in technology and precision capabilities. He's paid $260,000 each for two harvesters. A "planting team" or full set of equipment, including tillage, goes for about $1.1 million.

"And we're just a small farm," he said.

Asked whether potato growing is profitable, Stevenson answered that last year -- three months before the season's end -- he had projected $620,000 in profit. "By the time we finished it was half a million pounds ($775,000) below that" -- meaning he lost about $155,000. "We dropped half a million quid (pounds) between the end of July and October." Reason: Rain fell in buckets, washing soil away from the potatoes, exposing the tubers to the sun, turning their skins green, and ruining their market appeal. Stevenson says he's going to stick with potatoes for now, but he's an accountant.

"If it doesn't come back again, I'll just reallocate my assets," said Stevenson, the farmer/accountant.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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