Three years of potato research at Elveden Estate aims to spark a 'quantum leap' in farming
A three-year research project at an East Anglian farm has shown growers a myriad of small improvements which could spark a "quantum leap" in potato production - and taught some broader lessons about communication and knowledge-sharing.
More than 100 farmers, agronomists and suppliers gathered at Rowley Mile Racecourse in Newmarket to hear the results of trials undertaken at the Elveden Estate, near Thetford, as part of the Strategic Potato (SPot) Farm East initiative, co-ordinated by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board’s potatoes division (AHDB Potatoes).
It marked the culmination of the three-year project which has analysed the effectiveness of various herbicides, nutrients, irrigation regimes and pest control strategies across different potato varieties.
Amid all these countless variables there were important insights into improving crop yield and quality.
But Elveden farms director Andrew Francis said this work could only have the intended benefit to the wider industry if farmers were given the information and confidence to take these ideas back to their own land and see how they work on their own potato varieties and soil conditions.
“I think the fact there are 100 people here looking for answers is a really good indication that people want to improve,” he said. “There is a definite desire to make these changes.
“What we do through this initiative is to identify areas where we would like to improve, but also to use it to show what we currently don’t know. It is about not being insular as an industry. It is about opening that out, opening it up to others, and getting some lateral thinking into it.
“We need to look at things in a different way. How do we effect quantum leaps in a big way, these big step changes, given that we only have one learning opportunity every 12 months?”
But as well as reaching for those quantum changes, Mr Francis said “little simple wins” should not be overlooked.
“In 2017 we conducted some fairly extensive trial work with some of our partners, simplistically looking at water run-off between rows of potatoes on slightly sloping fields,” he said. “There could be a big win there, but it is quite a simple solution to that in terms of disrupting the wheelings to create little mini dams, and how you manage your headlands to intercept water when it comes off the field. We can do a lot very simply.
“It is great to have big grand scientific goals, but actually don’t overlook the little things that can give you quite big wins.”
The 22,500-acre Elveden Estate includes the UK’s largest lowland farm, with crops including potatoes for major customers including fast food chain McDonald’s.
The SPot Farm East results day included data from trials assessing various crop varieties’ tolerance to potato cyst nematodes (PCN), and the effect of nitrogen fertilisers on Black Dot infections.
Graham Tomalin, an agronomist for Vegetable Consultancy Services (VCS) also outlined results from trials to assess the cost and effectiveness of new herbicides to fill the gap left by Linuron, a “mainstay” chemical for potato protection, which failed to win re-approval last year.
“We are losing so many actives now that we have got to look at how to get the very best out of the actives that remain – and any new ones that are coming in,” he said.
INVOLVING THE CONSUMER
The whole food chain, including the consumer, needs to play its part in ensuring farms can become sustainable, profitable businesses that are meeting their environmental obligations as well as the demands of the end user, said Elveden Farms director Andrew Francis.
“I think the thing that is missing is communication and knowledge, from everybody that is involved in potatoes – and I take that right the way through to the person who cooks the potatoes, buys them in a restaurant and eats them,” he said.
“As growers and producers we have had a lot of big wins. There are still hopefully some big wins to come, and there are lots of small changes which we can affect and keep improving, but there is a sense of real impetus within the community at large, and actually the production of potatoes should be the consumer’s problem as much as it is my problem.
“It should be a shared responsibility and, through this project, I think we are opening up our souls and saying this is what we are currently doing and this is the best we can do today, but the limitations to doing it better are the missing X factor, so what do you want? If we know what the goals are we can work towards them.
“It is all about this shared responsibility. Too often the whole backdrop has been quite critical in terms of what we do, but we have got to cast all that off and come together and say that if you want us to produce potatoes for you then together we have got to agree a way of producing potatoes that everyone is comfortable with. “That is what we are trying to do.”