Monday, July 15, 2019

Making the most of the humble spud

July 31, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

Judith Tooth meets Essex farmer Robert Strathern who is adding value and flavour to his potato crop.

Finely sliced potatoes gradually turn a gentle shade of gold in a deep bubbling bath of sunflower oil. They are moved carefully up a conveyor belt for flavouring before being sealed into little packets and packed into boxes. Fairfields Farm hand-cooked honey, butter and sea salt crisps, a special order for Virgin Atlantic airlines, are bound for high places.

Out on the farm, 15 irrigation reels are running 24/7 on the potato crop. It’s mid-July, and, like many other parts of the region, there has been no rain for more than two months. In another fortnight, the reservoirs will be dry.

“A potato crop normally need 25ml of water a week,” says farmer Robert Strathern, who farms with his wife, Laura, and children, Angus and Imogen, at Wormingford, near Colchester. “As we’re in a dry part of the country we work on the basis that we’ll irrigate six to eight times a season – elsewhere it might be two or three.

“But this year, with temperatures regularly above 25ºC and transpiration rates so high the crop is using 30ml a week – and we only have capacity for 25ml. As a result growth rates are very slow so the potatoes are not putting on size very quickly and the canopy is starting to age. So we’re looking at lower yields and smaller potatoes.”

Crisp production

Robert grows 13 varieties of potato, four of them for crisps, on 220ha potatoes at Fairfields Farm and land rented from local landlords. On-farm crisp and fresh production takes 70% of the crop, with 30% grown on contract for trade.

Each week, 50t of potatoes go through the farm’s crisp factory, and a further 75t go through the farm’s packhouse. Lifting of the new crop is about to start, with crisping variety Rosetta first on the list.

Robert started growing potatoes on a few hectares on the home farm at Layer Marney. Enjoying the challenge of growing a crop where lots of things can go wrong, he gradually grew more. He began renting Fairfields Farm, a former airfield, from his father, Jim, and soon saw the potential for adding value by washing, packing and grading the crop. Then came the idea to produce crisps from home-grown potatoes.

“It had to be commercially viable, and at the time there were some regional players and big players, but there was a position in the market for crisps with local provenance to East Anglia,” says Robert.

“We started production in 2007 and for the first three or four years had someone else making the crisps for us. Then we built our own factory and packhouse in 2011/12 with an EADA grant and, later, a Leader grant, to help with machinery, bagging and frying.

“As we’ve evolved we’ve become not just a local producer: we’re supplying national and international markets.”


Turnover has nearly doubled in the past 18 months, in part by achieving AA standard accreditation with the British Retail Consortium, creating new opportunities for Fairfields Farm to produce crisps for co-packers and supermarket own-label lines. It’s also helped develop export markets, the bulk of them outside Europe, which now account for 20 % of sales.

“It was a big commitment for a business of our size, and it took us a year to get the systems in place – for example, changing the flavour system in the factory so that the cleaning regime was BRC compliant – and employing the right staff with technical training.

“But we knew it would open up new growth opportunities: exporters see BRC accreditation as a world-renowned standard meaning ‘safe, trustworthy and premium’.”

Buying another crisp company, Ten Acre, earlier this year has also contributed to growth. Production of the ‘free from’, vegan and kosher brand has moved from Ireland to the farm, and markets in the UK and abroad are being developed.


At home, rather than the big supermarkets, Fairfields Crisps – now with eight flavours in newly redesigned share bags and grab bags, and thicker packaging for longer shelf life – are supplied to the food service industry and independent retailers.

The farm also offers a delivery service to pubs, restaurants and independent retailers within a 40-mile radius, and a next-day nationwide courier service.

The East of England Co-op has been an important customer since day one: “The way the Co-op operates and trades ethically towards its suppliers is in line with how we think business should be done.

“It is important to have a presence with the multiple retailers, though, as they do take the lion’s share of crisps sold in the UK, so we supply them with another brand, JackPots, and our new Heat and Eat crisps that can be warmed in a microwave oven.”

Fairfields Farm works with grower group East Suffolk Produce, something Robert sees as very important to his business now and moving forward. Working together means there’s a pool of growers’ land and continuity of supply.

Brexit challenges

Supply of labour, however, is creating difficulties: “In terms of labour, Brexit has had a really negative effect on our business, adding recruitment and training costs. We have 40 permanent staff here, a lot of them historically from eastern Europe, who live in and are part of the local community.

But we also use a lot of harvest labour, and before the referendum there was a good flow of good quality people. Now they are not coming over in anything like the numbers they were. It’s daunting enough [coming to work in another country] without wondering, will I be welcome, will I be wanted.

“Some farmers who don’t use much labour might not appreciate that – but the impact on businesses like strawberry growers and so on, they’re really feeling the pain, and some of that production might leave the UK. Here, we’ll have to look to more automated systems for grading and packing potatoes.”

The crisp packet redesign features a new strapline, ‘handcooked potato crisps made with renewable energy’, marking the development of an anaerobic digester on the farm. Contracted to supply all the feedstock for the plant, two thirds of the gas produced goes to the national grid main, and the rest is converted to electricity to power the farm’s cold store and factory.

“We can have a broader rotation now – before it was mostly wheat, with potatoes one year in five. Now potatoes, rye and maize are the main crops, with wheat as a break crop. That, and spring cropping, should help us control grass weeds a bit better, and extend the potato rotation to one year in six.

“This is our first year of spreading digestate from the plant, and it should condition the soil and supply all our fertiliser requirement on this farm and for some potatoes grown locally, so it’s quite significant. It’s really important to give back to the soil, and, looking to the next generation, to pass on the farm in a better state than when we took it on.”


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