The chips were really down for potato grower Tom Clarke earlier this year. But he is bouncing back. Judith Tooth reports.
Cambridgeshire potato grower Tom Clarke was stuck with no buyers for his crop when the Coronavirus lockdown forced the blanket closure of fish and chip shops earlier this year.
But he is determined that his farm business will bounce back from the impact of a difficult season which has seen more than its fair share of challenges – including for another of his key root crops: sugar beet.
Earlier this spring, potato prices dropped £100 overnight. By late April, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board estimated that 188,576 tonnes of chipping potatoes had been impacted by market closures.
Tom grows potatoes in a joint venture with a neighbouring farmer. The two men faced a further problem too: a third CIPC (chlorpropham) application was needed to suppress sprouting, but this meant the potatoes couldn’t be sold skin-on.
Supply and demand
Doing so would have breached permitted levels of the now banned chemical. Even after NFU lobbying and a successful application by the Fresh Potato Suppliers’ Association for an amendment to the rule, Tom and his neighbour still couldn’t find buyers.
“We tried to sell into fresh produce but there was too much competition,” he says.
“We only started to shift them when the guidance changed and fish and chip shops began to open again. We did eventually sell, but prices were much lower due to oversupply and lower demand, so we made a loss.”
Fast-forward a few months, and this year’s harvest at Prickwillow is well underway, with chipping varieties Agria, Markies and Sagitta going into store. While Tom once grew Maris Piper, he now favours varieties that perform with less irrigation to minimise soil damage.
Even so, autumn rains have created challenging conditions on what are easy-working fenland soils – medium silty clay loams with 20% organic matter content, interspersed with silty bands that follow the lines of the old marsh creeks.
This year’s sugar beet crop – and the future of the UK sugar beet industry, is troubling Tom even more. Describing himself as a natural optimist, he says it is hard to witness an industry with so much going for it facing so many threats.
In an open letter to his South East Cambridgeshire MP, Lucy Frazer, last month, he lamented the government’s proposal to import an extra 260,000 tonnes of raw cane sugar tariff-free in 2021 – about 12.5% of UK demand.
“This will come from countries using subsidies and production methods illegal here – from slave labour to banned pesticides – making their exports artificially cheap, at great social and environmental cost”, he wrote.
“Sugar beet is a fantastic crop,” he says, “and there’s so much you can do with it, as well as produce sugar. There’s animal feed, betaine for shampoo production, pharmaceuticals and bioethanol.”
Then there are the benefits it brings to the rotation, the sugar beet tops that feed Bewick swans on the Fens, and the habitat for stone curlews on the Brecks. And yields have increased by 25% in the past 10 years. All that without any direct subsidy.
“It’s not often you have a crop like that, that you can really believe in.”
While the past decade has seen substantial gains in yields, this year they have been knocked sideways by the impact of virus yellows – the worst epidemic since the mid-1970s, according to the British Beet Research Organisation.
In the balance
The very mild winter led to huge numbers of aphids migrating into crops early in the season, and the withdrawal of neonicotinoid seed treatments left them exposed to aphid-borne infection.
“It’s the same as happened with oilseed rape, only in faster motion,” says Tom. “There are 57% infection rates in the Wissington factory area. Yields will be massively down. The future of the industry is in the balance.”
British Sugar’s three-year £12 million virus yellows crop assurance fund will cushion growers from some losses. But the NFU Sugar Board, on which Tom sits, wants Defra to discuss compensation in line with the French government’s support of its growers.
Meanwhile, BBRO, alongside its variety screening work, has some new virus reduction projects starting this season. One, looking at the effects of undersown cover crops in sugar beet, will be watched with particular interest by Tom.
“I’ve always undersown barley in the really black peaty fields at risk of fen blow, because the barley anchors the soil. I don’t know for sure if that was why there was no virus in those fields this year, but next season I’ll be sowing barley in all my sugar beet crops.”
Addressing soil erosion, along with ploughing only when needed rather than out of habit, and increased efficiencies such as using variable rate seed and fertiliser – are all good business decisions, he says.
They are just some of the ways Tom is reducing his carbon footprint as a farmer. And he is one of 26 case studies across the country highlighted by the NFU in the run up to the COP26 climate change conference, due to be held in Glasgow next year.
“The aim of the case studies is to highlight to other farmers that working towards net zero by 2040 is a work in progress, and to encourage them to think about what they can do, or what more they can do, to help the industry meet this goal.
“None of us has all the answers, and we all face different challenges – for example, there are a lot of carbon emissions out of peat land. But it’s vital to be able to carry on farming, and farming can be part of the answer. We can’t just rely on other countries to produce food for us: that would be a strategic error.”
Two of the three sites around Prickwillow that make up Tom’s farm have been in higher level stewardship since 2012. There are skylark plots, wild bird seed and pollen and nectar mixes, beetle banks, and a new reed bed to encourage reed buntings.
Tom is also part of the Ely Nature Friendly Farming Zone, a group of 22 farmers in the area, set up with the help of the RSPB, to share best practice and knowledge on how to encourage wildlife.
“Back in the ‘80s, there were just thousands of rabbits here. Now, there are very few rabbits, but there are badger setts and deer, there are goldfinches, marsh harriers and corn buntings, partridges and barn owls.
“We have a very different suite of species we’re trying to help in this landscape, such as water voles and lapwings. We have an ambition to link up our wildlife habitats, but we’ve lost our RSPB facilitator, so we’re looking at how to carry on, and how we can do more.”