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What makes Breckland the 'farming equivalent of Canary Wharf'?

PUBLISHED: 09:19 29 November 2019 | UPDATED: 09:28 29 November 2019

Heygate Farms manager William Gribbon was one of the winners at the 2019 National Potato Industry Awards. Picture: Ian Burt

Heygate Farms manager William Gribbon was one of the winners at the 2019 National Potato Industry Awards. Picture: Ian Burt

Breckland's concentration of potato-growing knowhow has made it the "farming equivalent of Canary Wharf", according to one of three farms in the area to earn national industry recognition.

Russet potatoes at the Elveden Estate. Picture: Sonya DuncanRusset potatoes at the Elveden Estate. Picture: Sonya Duncan

The region's reputation was underlined by its impressive showing at the first National Potato Industry Awards in Harrogate where the Elveden Estate, near Thetford, won the Grower Award as well as being a finalist in the agronomy category.

Meanwhile Swaffham-based Heygate Farms carried off the Marketing Initiative title, while OW Wortley from Methwold was a runner-up in the Grower category.

Andrew Francis, farms director at Elveden, said the combined accolades showed how the area's fertile soils had attracted a cluster of high-achieving businesses and expertise - in the same way that London's financial district has.

"I would liken it to the farming equivalent of Canary Wharf, where you have got a concentration of all the bankers and traders, and it attracts a certain calibre of people who have to be right on top of their game," he said.

Andrew Francis, farms director at Elveden Estate, which was one of the winners at the 2019 National Potato Industry Awards. Picture: Sonya DuncanAndrew Francis, farms director at Elveden Estate, which was one of the winners at the 2019 National Potato Industry Awards. Picture: Sonya Duncan

"Breckland sands can support multiple root vegetables, not just potatoes, so you have a very dense area of very busy multi-spectral businesses, which will naturally migrate a particular skill set of people.

"The fact that there are a lot of us within a small footprint - we all work together and get on very well, but at the same time it brings a lot of competition and peer pressure, because you always want to do something better than your neighbour. That is human nature.

"With the demands of our soil it is critical to make sure we understand nutrients and water and irrigation to a very fine detail. We have to be focused every day."

About 1,200 acres of potatoes are grown at the Elveden Estate for customers including McCain, McDonalds, major retailers and a crisp manufacturer - as well as for its own Garden of Elveden brand.

A Breckland potato field at the Elveden Estate. Picture: Chris HillA Breckland potato field at the Elveden Estate. Picture: Chris Hill

Mr Francis said the variation within the estate's sandy soils was another reason that "attention to detail is something I hammer into my team all the time."

"Those on the Brecks will know there are different grades of sand and different coarseness and different stone content," he said. "We know a very fine and soft sand will produce good salad potatoes, but a really coarse field will not, as it will roughen the skin.

"If you categorised our sands there are probably six different categories of specific potato use based on stones, grain size, even background chalk is very important as well."

Attention to detail is also the mantra at Heygate Farms, which has developed the Norfolk Peer and Norfolk Keepers brands for the potatoes it supplies to Tesco.

Farm manager William Gribbon said the ability to mark each pack with the exact field where the potatoes were grown had become a key part of the provenance story which underpinned the firm's marketing strategy.

"In light of what is coming up with Brexit, traceability is going to be very important," he said. "We have got each field on the back of the pack and people can go on the website and see exactly where each field is grown.

"On the back of other packs of spuds there are growers' names but not the name of the field, so those spuds could be coming from anywhere. Nowadays a brand can create more margin but you need to put the effort into traceability as well."

Mr Gribbon said 5,000 tonnes of Norfolk Peer and Norfolk Keeper potatoes had been grown this year, accounting for about 500 acres of the farm - an area which had grown by 100 acres for each of the last five years as the brand's popularity grew.

Andy Wortley of OW Wortley and Sons, at Methwold, said a co-operative spirit to share irrigation, land and distribution resources had also contributed to the region's shared success.

"I is really good news for the area," he said. "We have got the right sort of soil, and the right expertise down here. We help each other out and we co-operate as much as we can. We get on well, but it is pretty competitive at the end of the day."

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