With over 280 landlords and an average field size of just 2 acres, The Jersey Royal Company is a fascinating potato producer facing some familiar and some not-so-familiar challenges.
Sitting down with the company’s Business Unit Director, Mike Renouard, we get an insider’s view on what it takes to grow one of the UK’s most renowned varieties at a time when crop protection options are declining.
“Integrated farm management is a real driver throughout the business,” says Mr Renouard. “We continually look to develop, improve and streamline practices to be more efficient and, at the same time, better manage the environment.”
Over one third of the Jersey’s cultivatable land mass is used to grow Jersey Royal potatoes each year. As a result, the company’s activities have a significant impact on the island both economically and environmentally.
“Many of our challenges are similar to those faced by farmers throughout the world, namely sustainability and profitability” says Mr Renouard. “Working such small parcels of land, growing a heritage variety, in light of reducing crop protection products mean there’s greater potential for the build-up of weeds, as well as soil borne pests and diseases.”
The Jersey Royal Potato Company is owned by Produce Investments, who also own Greenvale Potatoes. It employs 40 full time staff and 350 seasonal workers.
“We are responsible for 60% of all Jersey Royal potatoes – that’s about 20,000 tonnes each year. They are grown on 3,700 acres, or according to the islanders, ‘8,300 vergées’, that’s roughly 1,600 fields,” explains Mr Renouard.
“The business model for the company has evolved in recent years. We’re now a fully integrated, growing, harvesting, grading, packing, selling and distributing Jersey Royal potatoes to over 180 different destinations.” “We’ve been members of LEAF since 1996 and our products have carried the Leaf Marque since 2005,” he says.
The company uses technology throughout its business, through crop imagery of the canopy, helps us optimise yield and tuber size,” says Mr Renouard, a fast respiration chamber, monitors produce respiration rate to reduce oxygen levels down from 21% to 8% extending shelf life by 2 or 3 days. And we have a vehicle tracking system for our 110 tractors, 80 minibuses and 20 farm vehicles which is linked to workshop and maintenance apps and monitors fuel efficiency and performance.”
“While a farming culture is deeply embedded on the island, everything we do is in someone’s back garden.”
Rotations now include a variety of cover crop mixes and grass for grazing by dairy cows but for decades the land grew potatoes as a monocrop. This, notes Mr Renouard, has led to the build-up of a soil-borne pest, the Potato Cyst Nematode (PCN), that can survive in the ground for up to 15 years.
“It’s a near-perfect example of how we’ve had to broaden our thinking as the range of crop protection products has diminished. Historically we’ve controlled PCN with soil sterilants and nematicides but these have been withdrawn over time. Today, we’ve only got Vydate (oxamyl) available and that’s restricted to seed-crops, so we’ve turned to two plants, solanum sisymbriifolium and caliente mustards, to help reduce populations.”
“Solanum sisymbriifolium, a plant from the potato family, is sown ahead of potato crops to trigger PCN hatch. As the larvae cannot feed on the roots, they die of starvation. Caliente or ‘hot mustards’ are sown after the potato crop. They are flailed at flowering and incorporated, releasing natural isothiocyanate gas in the topsoil, reducing PCN numbers,” explains Mr Renouard.
Accurately assessing the impact of these cover crops was challenging up until the company developed its own in-house soil analysis laboratory, software and process.
Technology also helps the company control disease. “Blight is our biggest challenge,” says Mr Renourad. “We use the Dacom blight model in combination with four in-field weather stations. Together they provide the information that underpins product choice and timing.”
Accuracy is essential for the company as much of the acreage also serves as catchments for the island’s water supplies.
“We consider ourselves to be environmentally responsible and in 2016 we initiated the Action for Cleaner Water group for Jersey. It’s led us to look at available products and their potential to run off or leach in combination with the location of fields and their ability to influence the water supplies. Today our risk-based assessment for both fungicides and herbicides means we only apply products least likely to leach or run-off on the most vulnerable catchments.”
“This does further limit the range of products we can use in certain areas,” acknowledges Mr Renouard, “but it’s a compromise that is entirely necessary.”
“When it comes to weed control, we’ve an additional issue; our early crops are covered with plastic mulches, which leaves little time for herbicide applications.”