Bettering the Blight
When it comes to growing carrots and onions, Joe Rolfe is your man. In his most recent endeavour, he has sought to add 30 acres of potatoes to his rotation. He managed to spare half-an-hour to talk to me about the trials, tribulations and successes of his first year in the organic potato business.
Can you give me a background to Taylor Grown?
All the land that we farm is rented in, with the majority coming from Houghton Hall. We have been farming with Houghton for many years and we have agreed to take all the vegetable growing land that is available. This is to make sure we safeguard our position and the necessary irrigation water. Because of the type of land we’re on, very light sandy soil, and with all the root crops we grow, we need to make sure we have plenty of accessible water.
And what are your major routes to market?
All the veg that we grow is supplied into Produce World and that is all distributed to the major supermarkets. There are some wholesale markets that we also supply, like Langridge Organics in London. So, if you like, we supply to retail and wholesale.
What led to you growing potatoes?
Going back four years ago, in 2014, we started growing brassicas. The crop grew well, but after three years, and due to the nature of the supply and demand, we decided to try something else. Off the back of that we had to determine as a business: what are we going to grow instead?
Once we moved away from brassicas we decided to align ourselves with the other crops that Produce World sold to retail. Hence, we chose potatoes. The reason was that growing potatoes very much fitted our model, we don’t have a lot of staff and organics is very labour intensive, but potatoes and onions are very mechanized. Then from a practical viewpoint, we already owned a lot of the kit so it made a lot of sense. And from a risk and reward point of view, for us the risk of potatoes looked lower than continuing to grow brassicas.
A field with a view
Why were you so concerned about potato blight?
We quickly cottoned on to the fact that blight is a huge issue, whether that be for organic farmers or not. Obviously, there is a lot of talk in the industry about the loss of copper. But my personal thought was: why should we start a project by tying our arm behind our back? Copper is going to be banned whether you like it or not, so we decided that we’d start with a clean slate.
What preventative work did you do to encourage the growth of a healthy crop?
It comes down to what have we done in other crops and how we can transfer that knowledge across.
If you produce a healthy plant you’d like to think it can protect itself from the elements. And then on top of that: how do you get a healthy plant? Some of that comes from the health of the soils, which are benefiting from high levels of biological and ecological activity. Variety is key. We knew that it was all about getting the right variety, on the right soil types, at the right time of year for planting and harvesting.
How do you manage the risk?
One of the key things we did was that we grew on a bed rather than a ridge. The reason for that was that a bed will retain moisture far better than a ridge will. The critical period for scab is at tuber initiation, though if you’re putting a lot of water on your potato crop to reduce scab you’re increasing the chance of blight. This is because you’re creating moist atmosphere that the crop is going to grow in – which is a perfect condition for blight. By putting it into beds you reduce the amount of water that you use. Reducing use further, we decided to only irrigate in the day so that the leaf dries off and leaving the soil as the only moist component.
So yes, just some really basic things that actually when you think about them make a lot of sense.
Would you do anything differently?
I would look more at plant spacing, just to create more air flow and not having them all bunched up. I believe that we could have got another tonne per acre increasing the plants per metre square slightly. We might also try and get everything in the ground a little bit earlier and possibly chitting the seed. Chitted seed is different in that it exposes the initial tap root of the plant, meaning that it is ready to go when you put it into the ground, giving you a week’s head start on growth.
Apart from that it’s about not tweaking too many controls at the same time so that you know what changes work and what don’t.
Importance of variety?
The two varieties we grew for the main crop were Marfona and Orla though they were not known for their blight resistant characteristics. So alongside these two, we trialled a substantial variety of potatoes which we’ll look to use next year, if there is enough available seed.
Going forwards, we will look at what did well in the trial, get more seed and put down a bigger area to these new varieties.
Ready and Waiting
Tell us more about the variety trial?
We tried out about 20 plus varieties over 30 different beds. There were two very interesting looking varieties, whilst all the other trialists were subdued with blight, these two were very good throughout and sustained themselves all the way through the season.
Purely from a blight point of view they outdid everything that was there. It’s great that they were so blight tolerant but we also need to also test the flavour, the quality, the yield and the consistency.
What do you do once you noticed patches of blight?
Once you see blight, the sooner you get rid of the top the better. Initially if you start seeing patches, we would just take the topper in and top it down. This seemed to stop it spreading so quickly to the rest of the field, it will eventually take over so it’s really a technique to slow the spread.