Coastal potato growers aim to bag local market
Suffolk potato growers are aiming to bag a share of the local produce market as they promote the benefits of eating a crop which is fresh, locally-grown and packed with potassium.
Three Musketeers, a £12million marketing operation known as 3Ms which trades as a mutual for six major farming businesses along the Suffolk coast, began harvesting its new potato crop on May 29 – 10 days later than last year, when weather conditions were more favourable.
The county’s potatoes, many grown in the light, sandy soils of the Suffolk Heritage Coast, supply major supermarkets up and down the country – but, remarkably, only a small proportion of the 3Ms crop stays behind for local consumption.
3Ms, set up in 2001, currently sells 95% of its potatoes to the big supermarket and retail suppliers, retaining just 5% for local outlets, which are a small but growing market for it. In total, it grows 42 different varieties of potatoes across the 3Ms group, out of thousands of possibilities.
But its ambition is to sell more of the 70,000 tonnes of spuds it grows on around 34,000 acres to local buyers. Last year, it launched its “Suffolk Early Chippers” chipping potatoes, aimed at chip shops and wholesalers across the UK and Ireland, as it tries to put the county on the map for its early potato crops.
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It sees potential for growth, and wants to promote the environmental benefits of fewer food miles through local sales.
“It’s a key driver for us to try and get local potatoes into local people’s larders,” said 3Ms managing director Edward Blanchard.
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“Only about 5% is actually sold locally, but it should be higher than that. We started 12 months ago with chipping potatoes, which is very successful.”
One of their biggest challenges is the logistical one of getting the potatoes ready for harvest off the land and on to retailers’ shelves as quickly as possible, he says, and they aim to achieve this over two to three days. The hope is that local consumers will start demanding them.
“What we really need is for Suffolk people to go into stores and start asking for Suffolk new potatoes,” he said.
Bruce Kerr, of Kerr Farms, a member of 3Ms, said their first crop, Maris Peer new potatoes, was worth waiting for and, along with other varieties harvested later in the year, should be as much a part of the seasonal food experience as the English asparagus season.
“Don’t be shy to ask,” he said. “I think it’s a great product. The thing with new potatoes is they are only new until their skins are set. The official definition of a new potato is a potato where you can rub the skins off.”
Among the firm’s local customers are Suffolk Food Hall at Wherstead, near Ipswich, Friday Street Farm Shop at Saxmundham, and Foskers fruit and vegetable wholesalers at Ransomes Europark, Ipswich.
Rob Paul, who runs Suffolk Food Hall with his cousin Oliver and has been involved in the creation of the Wherstead Food Enterprise Zone (FEZ), also wants more local consumers to wake up to what is a key crop for Suffolk.
“It’s about taking them back from just seeing them as a bulk commodity,” he said.
Rob is involved in the potato harvest through the family farming business, R H and R Paul at Broxtead Estate, another member of 3Ms, which is run by his brother, AJ.
Although some of his customers loved to get the first Broxtead potatoes with the dirt still on, most now wanted a “clean” crop, so as an industry they have had to move with the times, he explained.
“Unfortunately that’s only a small proportion,” he said. “People are not interested in dirt.”
But consumers needed to be more attuned to the different varieties and their different qualities, he said, as at the moment they tend to stick with what they know.
Bruce added: “We have got to get it as the carbohydrate of choice.” He pointed out that as well as less food miles, the crop also used less water than some alternatives.
3Ms has switched to green energy and uses 100% renewable electricity from sister company Agri-gen Ltd, produced through an anaerobic plant using maize grown on the six farms.
It is now trying to persuade retailers to list Suffolk potatoes as a speciality line.
The Potato Council, the levy-payers’s group for potato growers, says the potato industry is worth about £4.1billion to the UK economy, with £70m made from crisps exports, £42m from seeds sold overseas and £60m from export sales of ware (eating) potatoes. Its 2,200 UK growers employ 16,000 people.
It points out that one medium-sized potato has more potassium than three bananas, is naturally fat-free and is also a source of dietary fibre.
But in recent years, consumer habits have changed, and as well as opting for greater proportions of imported carbohydrates such as rice and pasta, customers are buying their spuds in smaller quantities.
Growers, who have been hit by a fall in prices for their crops, have had to adapt by growing smaller potatoes for smaller bags. Prices have dropped from a high of about £300 a tonne in 2012 to about half that now.
But the industry is fighting back, and the Potato Council has launched a marketing campaign aimed at promoting its benefits with the slogan: “Potatoes not just tasty… naturally salt free, fat free and low in sugar too”.
Nick White, Potato Council head of marketing and corporate affairs, said: “Potatoes have had a tough time recently and we need to pull together to demonstrate that not only do they taste great, they have some impressive health credentials too.”
Jim Wayman, crops manager at 3Ms, said the quality of this year’s crop was looking good in terms of quality, although yield wasn’t high at the moment, as the cold spring had held it back.
“It’s been cold nights all the way through,” he said.