Tell us about your farm, location and your relationship with McCain.
My father and uncle started as potato merchants in the 40s, supplying potatoes to fish and chip shops and greengrocers around Yorkshire, and up and down the east coast. Although they initially only grew a small amount of potato themselves on around five acres, fairly soon they recognised that this was where their passion lay and today we have 1,300 acres. I don’t recall when I officially joined the business, I’m pretty sure I was always involved at some level! It’s in the blood, that’s for sure.
Growing potatoes on the doorstep of McCain around Seamer, we were always likely to work together, and as a business we’ve grown alongside them.
Our partnership, and it is just that, started way back in the late 60s with the late McCain Chairman, Mac McCarthy, who my father knew well. When the McCain brothers decided to set up a permanent home in the UK, Mac, who had been running a UK distribution network for them, established a food production facility in Scarborough as it was an area he knew well. With a strong potato growing history in the area it also made sense from a supply point of view. As one of those local farmers, growing fantastic potatoes, it was a natural fit to work together, and we’ve never looked back. Not that it feels like work, growing potatoes is a way of life for many families around here, as it has been for generations.
We now grow a number of different varieties on our farms, specialising in growing potatoes specifically for McCain. Depending on the variety and the specific qualities McCain are after, some will go straight to them from the field to be made into chips and others, with different qualities will be stored until they’re ready to be used.
We employ 45 people on our farm and as well as growing thousands of tonnes of potatoes every year, we also grow seed potatoes, wheat, barley, beans and oil seed rape as rotating the crops enables us to keep the soil healthy.
Are there any second / third generation potato growers in the family?
I followed my father and uncle into the business and as well as my son, who works in the business, we tend to have some pretty long serving staff. Martin, our transport manager started with us at 15. He’s now 57!
Ours is a close knit, fairly rural community that is based around farming, much like it has been for generations. As an established employer in the area, there wouldn’t be many families who we don’t have some kind of connection to, now or through parents and grandparents. Having those local relationships and retaining the knowledge of people who have grown up immersed in potato farming has been key to our success.
What is your favourite part of the potato year and why?
Spring time takes some beating. Those short, dark winter days can feel like they go on forever, but when the days start to get longer and the weather changes I really look forward to getting my boots on and getting out in the fields.
What is grow to store?
Potatoes, like many seasonal crops are stored to ensure they’re available all year round. This isn’t quite as simple as it sounds as we can’t just lock them in a cold, dark room until we need them! We need to constantly monitor the potatoes to ensure the temperature, air quality, moisture and sugar levels are at their optimum, otherwise the quality will deteriorate. If we don’t get it right, we risk losing the whole crop. Even though we’ve been doing it for years, and technology has removed some of the risk, there’s still a lot of nail-biting involved with potato growing. They’re a hard crop to grow commercially.
The storage process starts in the field as soon as the potatoes have been harvested. Despite appearing durable, the potatoes still need to be handled with great care so as not to damage the skins or cause bruises. Any damage will prevent the potatoes storing as well and reduce the overall quality. So, first we carefully split the potatoes by size in the field and then we decide whether we are going to bulk store or box store them.
Box store means that the potatoes are placed into specially made wooden potato boxes and then stacked on top of each other in a storage area. This system is more flexible, making it easy to store different varieties in the same area, and remove any crop if required. Two tonnes of potato are stored in each box, with around 1,200 tonnes in a store in total. Bulk store means that the potatoes are carefully piled up over a large ventilated floor. This system ensures efficient air circulation and works really well, you just can’t store multiple varieties together and it’s a lot harder to remove part of the crop if there are ever any issues. We use a mix of both systems, which are also temperature controlled, as well as providing McCain with potatoes fresh out of the field. Working closely with McCain to understand what they need for different products helps us to work out which varieties will be stored and what we need to provide and when.
When we store potatoes what we’re doing is effectively putting them into hibernation to halt the growing process. To do that we make sure it is pitch black in the store and then we don’t move them again until they’re ready to be chopped up and made into chips. We daren’t wake them up! Potatoes naturally want to keep growing. You have to be very careful, any movement or knocks could spark them back into life.
As soon as we bring them into the store we blast them with cold air to make sure the potatoes are dry, the skins are fully set and to kick start the hibernation process. Wet skins and muddy potatoes prevent the air circulating evenly and can suffocate the potato, so ideally we want dry conditions when harvesting.
We then slowly start bringing the temperature down. When the potatoes come in they will usually be at around 15 degrees, we then reduce that to a set level for around two weeks, before getting them down even further to an optimum level, which is where they stay until they’re ready for cooking.
Typically, in Winter we spend a lot of time going in and out of the stores, sampling the potatoes and monitoring temperature levels. While everything is digitally controlled these days, there is still no better way to take stock of potato quality than having a good sniff in the dark as soon as you enter the store. You just know when it’s right. The smell changes throughout the storage period but if anything isn’t right, my senses and experience will soon tell me. The air in the store is circulating all of the time, and is replaced every 12 hours to ensure it is fresh.
Perfect sugar levels are the key to a golden chip. To test sugar levels, sample potatoes are taken, chopped up and fried. Where they rank on the colour charts then gives us an idea of the sugar content. The right levels will give us a beautifully golden finish, while too much sugar will result in potato that quickly browns. Too little sugar means anaemic chips. All of these samples are recorded and shared with McCain to ensure the very best potatoes are available to make the very best chips. We also send the physical samples to them to carry out their own tests before it goes to the McCain factory. Nothing gets in unless it is spot on.
It’s all a long way from potato pies, the traditional way of storing potatoes. Once upon a time we’d pile potatoes in a corner of a field, dig a trench at the side for drainage and then cover them with layers of straw and soil, with a funnel at the top, until they were sealed in. Amazingly we’d store up to 100tonnes of potatoes in these potato pyramids, and it worked pretty well, but I must say I prefer modern methods!
What do you do and why – how does this make a difference to the final harvest?
There are so many factors I’m not sure I could put my finger on just one. The level of quality we need the crop to reach has never been higher, but having a strong relationship with McCain and an experienced team in place gives us the stability we need to take a long term approach to what we do. We look up to five years ahead, not season to season.
For example, field management is a precise art and we only grow potatoes in fields that are absolutely ready and suited to the potato we’re growing, in terms of soil conditions, light and drainage.
We grow a number of potato varieties for McCain, each variety is different and needs to be treated as such. Having been in the business so long we understand what grows best in the different fields on our land. We also keep records that we can refer back to years later which helps us to maintain standards and track trends.
Once it’s growing we get out in the field with a fork every five days to check on the colour of the potato plant canopy, how it is sat above the ground, and to have a dig to see what stage the potatoes are at. There is a lot of science involved but you still need to draw on personal experience and get your boots muddy!
Having said all that, ultimately we’re at the mercy of nature, and weather conditions can affect even the most cared for crop.
What are the perfect potato growing conditions?
We’re always looking for a perfect blend of warmth, light and moisture. Nothing too hot though, mid 20s at the most. You wouldn’t necessarily think it but potatoes are particularly sensitive. Last year was pretty good. The longest day coincided with the potato canopy being at its most full, which is ideal. This means that the extra leaf coverage can capture more sunlight and turn it into energy, which creates larger potatoes.
How do you know when things are going well?
We’re out there on the ground monitoring the crop and sampling potatoes all of the time but without even looking at the field, the weather tells you most of what you need to know.
How do you view your relationship with McCain?
We’ve been good for each other I think! It’s changed a bit over the years, and some of the faces have definitely changed but the partnership approach and trust is still there. The involvement of local people, who understand each other also remains. We’ve got a common goal, to grow quality potatoes with very specific attributes, and we’re more likely to achieve that working together.
It’s a very hands-on set up, we have an on-farm adviser, and we also head up a growers’ group in the region, something pioneered by McCain. This allows us to share information, and even equipment, and gives us access to world-leading experts and independent advice. It also helps us to look out for each other, and lend a hand if needed.
Having this kind of open, supportive relationship with rival growers would’ve been unthinkable in the past, but times have changed and we’ve all seen the benefits of working together.
How do you manage your environmental impact?
The two go hand in hand and we take our role in helping to manage the countryside very seriously. Whether we’re planting buffer strips near watercourses for bees and other wildlife, and to prevent soil erosion, or doing smaller things like maintaining hedges and verges, we’re committed to reducing our environmental impact. We’ve even recently donated a large section of land to the Environment Agency to enable them to put oxbows back into the River Derwent, hopefully easing the potential for flooding.
What makes you stand out from other potato farmers?
Potato farming’s not easy, but we’ve stuck at it because we enjoy it. We’re proud of what we do and our relationship with McCain. It’s taken a long time to get where we are and it’s that experience, the knowledge we’ve built up, and the trust we have with McCain which helps us to deliver top quality potatoes year after year.