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Farmer-owned East Suffolk Produce is celebrating its 10th anniversary Marketing key to getting best from potatoes

Farmer-owned East Suffolk Produce is celebrating its 10th anniversary

Potato planting progressed in fits and starts this spring in east Suffolk – interrupted by a fortnight of rain which delayed what was a promising beginning.

Planting began early for James Foskett Farms at Bromeswell, near Woodbridge. But 90mm of rain in just 14 days put a stop to proceedings. Finally, it dried up enough to get an early Marfona seed crop in the ground near Needham Market on 21 March.

“It started off good, and we were able to get ahead, much like everyone else,” says Mr Foskett. “But then we had a wet fortnight – not horrendously wet but consistently wet and not a lot of drying in between, which ground us to a bit of a halt.”

James Foskett Farms encompasses some 1400ha (3500 acres) of light soil. As well as the home farm, it includes a combination of tenure types, ranging from contract farming, farm business tenancies and annual licences in a 35-mile radius around Bromeswell.

Main enterprises comprise 385ha of potatoes and 140ha of conventional onions, with some cereals and sugar beet. But the farm also includes 90ha of organic carrots, radishes, sweet corn, green beans, beetroot and butternut squash.

Lighter soils

“We were just over 20% planted on potatoes by mid-March – whereas usually we would be about 35% by now,” says Mr Foskett. “We also still have 40 hectares of onions to get in. You can push potatoes a little on the lighter soils – but you can’t force onions too much.”

Growing a good crop is key to success. But so too is good marketing. James Foskett Farms is a founder-member of East Suffolk Produce – set up by a handful of growers who wanted to market their potatoes more effectively.

Formed in 2013, the farmer-owned marketing group is celebrating its 10th anniversary – helping growers secure more sustainable prices for their potatoes and supplying the crop to a wider segment of customers.

The group originally comprised James Foskett Farms, Greenwell Farms, Home Farm (Nacton), William Wrinch Farms and RJ & HW Wrinch then joined by JA Low & Sons and Wix Farms a year or two later.

Also based at Bromeswell, the growers in the East Suffolk Produce group produce some 50,000t of ware potatoes and 5000t of seed potatoes across some 1300ha of owned and rented land in and around coastal Suffolk and Essex.

Diverse crops

All farms grow a diverse range of conventional crops including wheat, barley, sugar beet, cabbages, cauliflower and onions. But they all share the same philosophy – that marketing potatoes is best done as a group rather than individually.

The teamwork ethos extends from the field to the office. The group employs five full-time staff members, covering accounts, ware sales, logistics, seed sales, agronomy, field and store sampling.

“This allows us to cover all vital areas of potato production to ensure that we can achieve the best possible results for our growers and customers at all times,” says ESP managing director and agronomist James Wrinch.

“We are ideally located on the east Suffolk coast – and the mild climate and warmer temperatures provide frost protection for the early season crops that we specialise in growing.”

Group members focus on early production from the beginning of June for new potatoes and the middle of July for Marfona and Maris Piper. Desiree and King Edwards usually starting during the first week in August.

“We store Whites, Piper, Maris Peer and Charlotte through the season,” says Mr Wrinch. “Home Farm Nacton and James Foskett Farms also grow organic potatoes and other organic vegetables.”

 

Quality seed

The group produces high quality English seed providing a unique service to growers where information about quality and planting densities is paramount. Just in time delivery can be arranged all the way through until the end of May.

The seed business comprises James Foskett Farms, Home Farm Nacton and Greenwell Farms. In total, it produces 200ha of certified seed – much of it aged so it emerges faster producing a commercial advantage for the customer in the following ware crop.

“We are a co-operatively minded grower group,” says Mr Wrinch. “We offer all of our growers a tailor made agronomy service to meet their requirements and also engage in agronomy and consultancy work with non-members.”

The group takes its wider responsibilities seriously too. East Suffolk Produce is part of the Carbon Charter network of sustainable businesses in Suffolk which explore ways of reducing their environmental impact and sharing best practice with others.

James Foskett Farms manager Mike Shapland says: “It works because we’re all like-minded growers. We are geographically close but we are also like-minded in our approach, professionalism and attention to detail when growing and marketing potatoes.

“That gives East Suffolk Produce the confidence to go out on our behalf and negotiate confidently for good contracts – we’ve been able to deliver on those agreements. There is strength and depth when it comes to something like that.

“There have been glitches sometimes due to the weather, which is understandable. But we have been able to support each other as growers – covering any gaps for one another as and when necessary. That means it has worked really well for us.

“We’re also relatively flexible as growers as well. We’re happy to take on additional loads or chop and change as things move. It works and it has given us a reputation for going the extra mile and being customer friendly.”

Before the East Suffolk Produce group was set up, the growers were supplying fewer than 30 customers. Today, they are supplying about 50. These are mainly in the prepack market, with some seed and one or two contracts for processing.

Doing it differently

“Rather than just trying to produce thousands and thousands of tonnes of white potatoes in September – which is the same as the rest of the country – we try to take advantage of our our geographical and climatic location,” says Mr Shapland.

“We’re trying to fulfil contracts that are a little bit niche. That means early crops such as early Peer followed by Charlottes. We also do early Piper and early whites, with specialty varieties such as King Edwards and then finest Reds and things like that.”

Research and development remains important. James Foskett Farms was the eastern region Strategic Potato (SPot) Farm for the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board – part of the AHDB’s excellence network.

Since the demise of AHDB Potatoes in 2022, Foskett Farms has been working with the Potato Partnership – conducting a number of field trials with a small group of other farmers and agronomy company Agrii.

Trials so far have included varietal performance and potato cyst nematode (PCN) resistance. A website is due to be launched giving members password-protected access to trial results and other useful information.

It works well, adds Mr Foskett. “We’re confident that we can make a return if we do our end of the job well in terms of yield and quality – and East Suffolk Produce do a great job on the marketing side. It’s been the making of our business.”