Thursday, December 14, 2017

AHDB Potatoes chairwoman brings quality experience to her role

December 1, 2017 by  
Filed under Crops

Appointed earlier this year, AHDB Potatoes chairwoman Sophie Churchill has already made her mark as she works on behalf of the sector and supply chain.

Succeeding Fiona Fell, Dr Churchill took up the reins at AHDB Potatoes in April. “I am a very practical person and very much enjoy the challenge of solving complex problems,” she says.

With her wide experience in many areas –  acquired from outside the sector, she brings a fresh approach to the potato industry, uncluttered by traditional thinking and can, constructively and positively, challenge the norm.

In addition to her new responsibilities, Dr Churchill is immediate past president of the Royal Forestry Society and was chief executive of the National Forest Company 2006-2014. She also chaired the Tree Aid charity until July this year.

Made an OBE in 2011 for services to the environment, Dr Churchill is an honorary fellow of the Institute of Chartered Foresters. She gained a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Growers and processors

Her first six months of familiarisation at AHDB Potatoes has included visits to meet, discuss and see at first hand important aspects of the industry with well known growers and processors such as Bruce Kerr, Mark Taylor and Dan Metheringham.

“I have also been to Cornwall to meet key grower Reuben Collins and was a delegate at the two-day Potato Europe event, which this year took place near Amsterdam in September,” she says.

Last month’s biennial Potato 2017 event – held in Harrogate on 22-23 November – proved to be an important networking opportunity to meet the industry’s “movers and shakers” as well as a wider cross section of growers.

“We know from our experience over many years how important this event is to the industry,” says Dr Churchill, adding that she is impressed too with work being carried out at the AHDB Potatoes crop storage research unit at Sutton Bridge, Lincolnshire.

Storage challenges

It is a considerable challenge for Sutton Bridge head Adrian Cunnington to plan effective, practical research programmes on behalf of growers with 4m tonnes of the UK’s 5.5m tonnes grown requiring robust and effective storage.

In practice, many potatoes are stored for longer than they actually grow in the ground.

“The overall role of Sutton Bridge is entering a new and exciting era, presenting many opportunities for us to collaborate with our colleagues in horticulture, for example, in the storage of field vegetables,” says Dr Churchill.

Potato growers need to be much more focused about their overall storage costs while the position of CIPC is changing very quickly, she adds. Links are already being developed with other research centres through projects such as the AHDB Storage Fellowship.

Dr Churchill is in an ideal position as an AHDB Board member to learn first hand from other sector colleagues and chairs who could benefit from the cross sector work being carried out at Sutton Bridge.

“AHDB Potatoes is doing excellent work in the areas of research and development. I have been impressed with what I have seen to date,” she says. “We will continue to work closely and effectively with all relevant parties in the vital areas of soil, soil structure and water.”

Brexit implications

In terms of Brexit, Dr Churchill says she is keeping a close eye on all aspects of leaving the EU and its implications for the sector. AHDB is working in tandem with the NFU, which holds the lobbying brief on many Brexit issues, she says.

Labour availability remains a vital area for all potato growers – not least in a Brexit context – and AHDB continues to monitor the situation.

Getting closer to the consumer is key. “We do not have a massive promotional budget for consumer PR but we do aim to get the many benefits of eating potatoes message across to shoppers by working closely and in tandem with major consumer companies in the sector.

“We generate some six figure opportunities for consumers to see positive media messages featuring potatoes and have been able to deliver both impressive and excellent editorial coverage for every £1 which is invested.”

More than 1m people have visited the AHDB Potatoes consumer website – popularised by Ella Woodward, who blogs as Deliciously Ella, making her mark with shoppers by presenting many different and tempting potato recipes which have been well received.

Back in the field, the AHDB will continue to develop its already popular national Spot Farm grower open days, such those held at the Elveden Estate on the Norfolk-Suffolk border. “Whether a big or small grower, there is always more to learn,” says Dr Churchill.

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