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by Andrew Arbuckle
There has been optimism recently regarding the opening of the massive Chinese market for Scottish seed potato growers but Nuffield scholar, Peter Grewar, has no illusions on that prospect.
“The Chinese only want one thing and that is access to the knowledge and expertise that we have. I see no benefit from going into that market, they just want the technology.”
He pointed out that the Chinese do not recognise Plant Breeder Rights and this means they can multiply up varieties bred elsewhere without paying any recompense to the original breeder.
Theoretically Scotland can only export mini tubers of seed but so far none have left these shores. Commercial sized seed is not allowed to be exported but the Scottish Government is trying to remove this hurdle.
His trip to China was but one of a number of globe crossing trips as part of his Nuffield scholarship and it took him away from the family business, which is based in Ardler, Perthshire. There, the Grewar family, father and mother, Peter and Annette, and son Peter, grow approximately 1,000 acres of potatoes. Almost two thirds of that area is grown on their own farming land with the balance taken on land which is annually rented.
In addition some 200 acres of land is rented for organic potato production as the business does not have any organically qualified land of their own. With pressure on the organic sector, the future of this part of their business is in some doubt. Yields are around about 50 to 60% of conventionally grown crops but costs are higher with weed control and desiccation being largely carried out by gas burner.
Looking to the future of organic production, he said, “We grow organic not through any philosophy but through following the market. Next year we could grow 300 acres or we could drop it altogether.”
The whole farming enterprise in Perthshire amounts to 3,600 acres, one third of which is owned. They have land on both Short and Long term Business Tenancies and they also operate a contract farming operation on the balance. The rotation is fairly simple being centred around potatoes with “as much wheat as we can sow in the Autumn.”
That and spring barley takes up the bulk of the acreage. A small area of land is rented out to a neighbour for growing carrots every year.
The grain is all sold through local co-operative East of Scotland Farmers, who operate with a pool pricing system for all the committed tonnage. For this harvest a new 12,000 tonne grain store complete with a 50 tonne per hour drier has been installed at East Ardler.
However, the core business is the potato crop which was started by his father thirty years ago. In addition to their own production, they grade some 25,000 tonnes for other growers in the Fife, Perth, Angus area, giving a 1,000 tonne plus weekly throughput.
Almost all this tonnage, both home production and incoming potatoes, then goes to supermarket pre-packers, Albert Bartlett, Airdrie,
With controlled environment stores, the grading is now almost a twelve month of the year job and a team of seven East European workers are employed fulltime at this part of the business.
The outside staff at the Grewars consists of 2 forklift drivers, one store manager, one working farm manager, 4 tractor men, a farm mechanic plus an apprentice, an accounts girl and someone to deal with the routine paperwork.
This last employee fills in the Health and Safety forms, the Quality Assurance forms and all the other non-decision making paperwork that now flows in every farm office.
“I found I was spending more and more time form filling and I was losing touch with the working part of the business. The girl who does this work now takes the chore away.”
The workforce is augmented at both spring time and harvest with local self employed contractors or operators coming through the local machinery ring, Ringlink. The Grewars operate with three harvesting teams with each team consisting of the driver of the harvester, two trailer drivers and a forklift operator.
Three years ago, the business expanded by taking land for growing potatoes in the Black Isle. This is a superb location for growing high quality seed and they now farm 2,000 acres some 380 acres of which is down to seed production.
One of Peter’s aims as a Nuffield scholar was to find out why, when there was increased area of potatoes being grown throughout the World, was the yield per acre dropping.
His answer lies in the seed and with its high health status that is why the Scottish seed industry has such a tremendous worldwide reputation.
Unfortunately of all the major staple foods in the world, the potato does not travel well. Not only is it perishable but the basic fact is that at least three quarters of the weight being transported is nothing more than water.
While transporting great volumes of potatoes is not a viable option, seeing how producers in other parts of the world grow their crops is. Peter not only visited a number of European countries but travelled over to New Zealand where the culmination of the visit was the World Potato Congress.
One of his big worries for the future is the state of the home market for potatoes. He believes the demand is contracting more than we think and work is required to get a better balance between supply and demand.
Often the up-coming generation wish to throw over many of the controlling organisations but Peter believes in the Potato Council and its programme. “It is the right vehicle and it is doing the right work” was his endorsement.
One of his Nuffield trips was to Brussels and following that visit, he took out a membership with NFUS. “I saw the work they were doing and the weight of opposition they faced. It was patently obvious they were the only ones fighting for us,” he stated.
Farmer: Pete Grewar and his parents Peter & Annette
Farming: East Ardler, they farm 3600 acres in Perthshire (1200 owned)
and 2000 acres on the Black Isle
Location: Ardler, Perthshire, with farms in Angus, Fife and the Black Isle
Crops: Potatoes – 3000 acres