Potato farming faces many challenges, including the rising costs of all commodities. The development was first highlighted by Nick Sheppard, a farm manager near Bury St Edmunds. The vitality of innovation in the field of agri-tech in such a time was discussed by Nick Sheppard when he led the “Agri-techE farm walk of 2022 while representing Upton Suffolk Farms.
According to Nick, the Ukrainian situation has raised the costs of everything. He used to pay £300 or less for nitrogen just a year ago and £200 or less the year before. Those prices have jumped up to £650. He also mentioned hearing about a DAP fertilizer boat from Russia that was turned back after arriving at the port.
It is also feared that agri inflation will take the challenge to another level as AF Group believes it will hit 22%.
According to Nick, 123 hectares of potatoes are produced by Upton Suffolk Farms, which are entirely consumed in family meals rather than given to processing. This produce is basically the backbone of farming. They will be planting potatoes from the beginning of March till the mid of the month, while the harvest will begin in late July, stretching till September. Some of the harvests go to storage; however, the majority is consumed by families that buy them from the supermarkets.
The Love For Growing Potatoes
Nick has a thing for growing potatoes, and that has led to him growing potatoes throughout most of his working life. His three and a half years at Upton Suffolk Farms are dedicated to potatoes, and even before that, he was working as a potato agronomist with an evergrowing love for potato farming.
While talking about salad potatoes, Nick pointed out that it is important to sell more than a million tubers per hectare to have an affordable return, all while obtaining a particular quality and size. A small potato with a diameter not more than 45mm can be sold for £300 per tonne. Any potato larger than 45mm can even be sold for only £50 per tonne based on the nature of the contract and market.
About 2M plots are dug twice a week in June and July, and the potatoes are taken back for size splitting and measurements. Based on the judgements, huge differences in returns are observed, which is quite essential.
The decision of when to start harvesting potatoes is very challenging due to the variation in size. Potatoes smaller than 25mm slip through the machinery, and if we leave them to grow for a couple of more days, the rest of the potatoes outgrow the demand. So the decision is mostly to let them grow to 45mm; however, this decision is always a very tricky one.
Different Challenges For A Potato Farmer
Just before Christmas, the seed potatoes are sent to cold storage at a temperature of 3 to 4 degrees which will hopefully be planted by early March, depending on the conditions. To control the chitting and to promote the stem numbers, the ethylene generator will be switched on.
The markets also determine how the farmers should move. Different markets have different schemes, and some of them request more audits. LEAF and Red Tractor are both admirable schemes for a farmer; however, they do lead to bureaucratic involvements, which are sometimes not well appreciated.
London is one of our good markets where the chefs are quite particular about the required potatoes, preferring Maris Peer. It’s a good potato for eating, no doubt; however, new varieties in potatoes are entering the market with better attributes in agronomy, and their growth can also reach up to 1.5million tubers per hectare. This can be easily considered a technological breakthrough in breeding, but we grow Maris Peer and Maris Piper because the clients want that, and the client is always right.
Onions and sugar beet are also produced at the farms. The sugar beet is sent to British Sugar for the brand Silver Spoon whereas the onions are grown in sets to be sold in supermarkets sales.
Benefits Of The Anaerobic Digester
The national grid takes gas from a third-party supplier that runs an anaerobic digester. Fertilizer used by the farms is a by-product of a digestate in liquid and solid form, which is produced by the farm where maize is grown along with energy rye which is used as feedstock for the plant.
The farm has purchased a machine called Rotormax from Holland to spread the digestate. Two-inch furrows are made by the Rotormax, which then injects the soil directly with the digestate so that the next crop has plenty of nutrient supplies. The process also saves the digestate from the air, which reduces volatilization.
According to Nick, the nutrition needed by their crops is mostly supplied by the 20 thousand cubic meters of digestate that they store.
Nick explained that the original owners of the plant were Strut & Parker, and now Material Change is running the plant, who is a professional AD operator. Material Change is producing more digestate and gas than the previous owner, which is an improvement according to Nick.
There are many customers for the other by-product of the plant, which is CO2. Greene King Brewery from Bury St Edmunds uses it in their drinks.
Oil Conservation Strategies
Nick also faces challenges like the varying depths and qualities of soil across the same farm. Some of the fields have blowing sand where the winds can potentially destroy small sugar beet plants if the months of March and April are dry. To stop the blowing, barley is being sowed between the rows of sugar beet. In May, when the crop is in enough abundance, the barley is sprayed.
Nick also has issues regarding weed beet, and they are testing new technologies, which include spraying the weed beet. Nick’s company was the first in its growing group, which tried Conviso Beet with a good result.
With Conviso Beet, the yield rose up to 85 tonnes per hectare which was 26 tonnes per hectare in the previous year. Although the cost hiked by £100 per hectare, the yield was still the highest so far.
Monitoring Nutrients Through Soil Analysis
Nick is customizing the use of mineral fertilizer for every single field depending on the analysis of the digestate and soil. He is taking help from a consultant for better soil management. Micronutrients are fully available at a pH of 6.5 to 7. Any further than 7 and nutrients begin to get locked by the calcium in the soil. Nick’s two fields have a minimum pH of 7, whereas the other fields have locked up magnesium, manganese, and phosphate, all due to high pHs of 8 and 9.
Due to onions and potatoes, Nick analyses the soil annually; otherwise, he conducts the analysis every three years.
Nick is now also analyzing the tissues by sending samples of the newest leaves in summer and spring to the laboratory, which sends back the results in three days. The results inform you if the crop needs more nutrients or not. If it does, the lack can be compensated by using a foliage spray.
Due to the high nitrogen in the liquid digestate, it can be more used in spring than it can be in autumn because not many autumn crops work well with it.
Nick appreciates that England has farming rules for water which are understandable from the aspect of drinking water and the environment. However, he would rather be happier to have clearer guidelines regarding some of the rules, which he believes are more theoretical than practical.
Use Of Cover Crops
According to Nick, cover crops have become a widely adopted practice recently in farming. Just a decade ago, most of the land would stay unused in non-spring seasons. Now green cover crops are grown over 240 hectares between cash crops.
Wildlife is covered by cover crops along with an improved structure and organic matter of the soil. Moreover, the digestate gets an outlet that can be used for stabilizing the soil while protecting the machinery as well. The digestate can be later on spread on the soil directly or with the help of sheep flocks. Cover crops also work as feeding grounds for different birds in the winter, all while providing a scenic view in winter as well.
Nick achieves financial balance with the help of a local farmer who grazes his sheep in the cover crops. The farmer pays Nick for every sheep per day, and this amount helps Nick cover the cost of all the seeds.
The cover crop also deals with PCN (potato cyst nematode), which is an experimental process. The pest rids the potatoes of the roots, due to which the potato cannot take up water and nutrition, which ultimately affects the yields. Nick has high levels of PCN, Pallida, and Rostochiensis, and the potatoes can defend themselves from one or two of these pests, but not all. This handicaps Nick from growing various types of potatoes and limit himself to Maris Peer and Piper because the consumers mostly demand these two types. However, there are many other types of potatoes than can be grown with higher financial and agronomic benefits.
Nick has to justify all decisions regarding irrigation when it comes to Red Tractor. For assistance, soil probes (EnviroScan) are installed in the soil at 04 different depths. Their total depth is a meter, and they are responsible for reading water conditions in the soil, the details of which are communicated through 4G powered by solar panels. Nick receives daily updates from the EnviroScan regarding the water used by the crops on his phone. Despite this technology, Nick still personally visits the farm with his spade.
If the soil structure is better, not much water runs through it. Although it is difficult to build organic matter on such land, Nick still hopes to see a little increase while trying to maintain the current levels.
Balanced irrigation is important to Nick, and he uses his own decision-making skill along with the use of irrigation technologies. According to Nick, as the technology is about two and a half decades old, he now has a good understanding of it and can use its data to decide if the crops need to be irrigated or not. Nick believes that his irrigation ventures have reduced in number due to the technology, which is an advantage of the advancements.
Nick talks about the sprayer in terms of technological dependence. He can recommend the spray details and send them to his sprayer driver, which goes on to complete the spraying process while taking notes of the duration and input used. In addition, Nick can keep track of the exact location of the sprayer, the fuel consumption, and all other such details from his office while using the connect system provided by the tractor manufacturing company.
Setting up the system is a bit complex and time-consuming for which Gatekeeper is used. Details of all the machinery, areas, and fields are recorded in there. Once done, the process becomes simple; one only has to check the tables to know the progress.
Nick now has a huge database dating back to almost a decade. Gatekeeper also helps in guiding the tractors by using GPS. It also helps in monitoring and setting the application rates of different seeds. Nick believes he has never even gotten to use the full potential of Gatekeeper.
Importance of Agri-TechE
Nick is happy to be a member of Agri-TechE because it helps him in staying up to date about new technologies available or are coming soon. 10% gains in profit are also a fruit of this venture, and now Nick and other members are looking to grab the little percentages of gains, for which the tech needs to be affordable. This membership has helped them evaluate all those possibilities and gain profits.