Norfolk potato variety in sales drive

A newly-launched brand of Norfolk potatoes has enjoyed major sales growth at 17 supermarkets across eastern England.

'Sales are already twice the forecast levels at Asda's supermarkets,' said farm manager William Gribbon, who is working with Fenmarc to meet demand for the freshly-lifted spuds.

His harvesting team at Heygates Farms at Swaffham starts lifting at 6am five days a week to get potatoes packed for same-day delivery to the region's stores.

'We want to lift them at their fresh-est. We can get them to the packhouse, washed and then packed and distrib-uted the same day,' said Mr Gribbon.

'Potatoes don't like to travel: the fresher they are, the better they are. Norfolk Peer seems to keep its appear-ance especially if freshly packed,' he added. He grows 1,200 acres in fields around Snailspit Farm, near Swaffham, including an expanded area of Norfolk Peer.

With March-based Fenmarc's Mark Taylor, Mr Gribbon took his idea for a niche potato, grown to a high specification and in distinctive packaging, to Asda's Leeds headquarters last season. The buying team was so impressed that he was asked to supply the chain's stores in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridge-shire for 16 weeks until mid-October.

'I'm trying to add value to my pota-toes by having a niche, branded variety and also put spuds back on plates. We've got to get the product into store within hours of coming out of the field,' he said.

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'The black and gold packaging really does stand out streets ahead of anything else. It is our attention to detail and the Breckland sand over chalk with irrigation that produces better potatoes than Israeli or Egyptian Peer.'

Anne Spencer, Asda's potato buyer, said: 'We know that locally-grown food is top of our customers' shopping list: this is why we work hard to ensure that all of our stores have hundreds of locally-produced products. These wonderful potatoes grown by Heygate Farms are a perfect example of our commitment to local farmers in Norfolk.'

Mr Gribbon said the variety Maris Peer was planted five inches apart and three rows in a bed from mid- March to spread harvest from early June. 'Our Norfolk Bakers, due for October lifting, are planted about 17in apart in two rows in a bed,' he added. 'This produces more stems, more tubers and a greater yield, all of an even size. So, instead of a big new potato which has to be cut in half, we want a forkful or mouthful, which is more appealing. And, because we're lifting and packing that day, they are very bright in appearance.'

A key to quality production had been investment in irrigation by his dad Mervyn, who took over the then 1,333-acre farm in 1971. And the crop had sur-vived the 2011 dry spell except-ionally well, said his son.

He added: 'My crew have been constantly running 22 irrigators – 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which is how we've kept them scab free.'