Late start for Pembrokeshire’s earlies – but quality good
FOLLOWING token liftings in time for last weekend’s local retail outlets, Pembrokeshire’s new season potato trade got under way in earnest on Monday – two weeks later than expected but with some top quality samples coming out of the ground.
While beginning of the week ex-farm prices in Cornwall were put at around £350 per tonne, Monday’s initial top grade Welsh liftings destined for the wholesale vegetable markets as far afield as Birmingham and Manchester were said to be making up to £750.
That level is expected to drop by the weekend and the Pembrokeshire-based producer co-operative, Puffin Produce, is looking to start its exclusive contracted shipments to Asda’s Welsh stores from the beginning of next week.
As part of its all-year-round commitment to supply some 17,000 tones to the supermarket’s stores in Wales, the bulk of the co-operative’s pre-packed range is grown, processed and marketed in Wales, though because of the price factor and the delayed start to lifting, its “first earlies” so far this season have had to be imported.
But with the contracted price set at around the £350 mark and more of the county’s producers now moving into the crop, they will quickly be replaced with heavily promoted “Pembrokeshire’s”.
One independent grower who started lifting on Monday is Simon Davies, primarily a beef and sheep farmer who farms the 220-acre Buckspool Farm, at Bosherston, south of Pembroke.
His first liftings were coming out of the ground at around five tonnes per acre and he expects to have cleared an 18-acre field of Minerva by this weekend.
The crop was planted under plastic in a field 400 yards from the sea on three sides during the second week of February – but suffered a two-week setback with three consecutive frosty nights in mid April.
The delay has not, however, affected yield to any major extent and growers in other competing areas have largely had to contend with the same weather conditions.
The crop, which followed a grass ley, has not been irrigated, was sprayed only once for blight and, according to Mr Davies, “is very clean indeed”.
It will be followed with a winter cauliflower crop before going back to grass.
A further 18 acres or so of potatoes are made up of Lady Christl for salad pre-packs and Maris Bard.
Whether Mr Davies continues to grow an early crop largely rests on where fuel, fertiliser and plastic costs will have settled when next year’s potato cropping plans need to be drawn up.
He is, in fact, one of the 30 or so remaining potato producers in the county still maintaining an interest in first earlies and whereas not too many years ago there were at least 300 growers.
Most of what they grow is now geared towards meeting a 52 week a year market demand and ironing out a great deal of the stress traditionally linked with good and bad cropping years.
“Setting up the Puffin co-operative has certainly proved to have been a shrewd investment,” says commercial director, Barry Gaskell.
“It has meant a considerable mind change by some of our grower members and there was some initial apprehension as to whether committing ourselves to a single supermarket group was the right move or not.
“But we provide each grower with a tailored agronomy package to suit each individual farm, specifying the type, variety and targeted lifting dates.
“Providing we have got the sums correct when it comes to agreeing a market price and the product meets the required standard, then more times than not the financial returns are a far better bet than continually relying on an open-ended market price.
* With a total investment of more than £2 million in its Haverfordwest operational base and pre-packing lines, Puffin’s 16 active producers with around 2,000 acres of plantings a year between them now have on-site fully automated storage for 5,500 tonnes of potatoes.
Facilities on members’ farms can accommodate a further 3,000 tonnes.