HAR­VEST SAVE OUR SPUDS

Spud grow­ers have bounced back with a bumper – and colour­ful – crop ready for crisp­ing, says Maria Fitz­patrick

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Front Page -

Ifeel like I’m on a field trip from the Willy Wonka school of agri­cul­ture. I’m stand­ing in a field in Ross-on-Wye, Here­ford­shire, watch­ing two grown men ex­cit­edly dig up pota­toes and cut them in half to re­veal the re­sults of their lat­est ex­per­i­ment. The pota­toes are mar­bled red or deep blue in­side and it’s quite sur­real to see. Th­ese mir­a­cle pota­toes come from a col­lab­o­ra­tion – but also a chal­lenge – be­tween Tyrrells, the Here­ford­shire crisp com­pany, and farmer Henry Chinn of Co­brey Farms. “Yes, they’ll do nicely,” he says, grin­ning widely. When they’re fully grown, the ‘Bur­gundy Red’, ‘Berg­erac’ and ‘Salad Blue’ va­ri­eties will join their pale cousin, the ‘Lady Rosetta’, in a jum­bled bag of pa­tri­otic crisps. Co­brey Farms, a prom­i­nent grower in Here­ford­shire since the Twen­ties, is one of the main grow­ers for Tyrrells, which was founded by Wil­liam Chase, a potato farmer, in 2002. Wil­liam started mak­ing small batches of hand-cut crisps in the old potato sheds in Tyrrells Court Farm in Leomin­ster, and tri­alling them at lo­cal farm shops at a time when prove­nance was firmly back on the agenda. To­day, such is the de­mand for English-grown potato crisps (even in France, a fact they’re proud of) that nine other fam­ily-run farms in the re­gion, in­clud­ing Henry’s, all part of a grow­ing co­op­er­a­tive, sup­ply them. Henry’s mood this morn­ing is as much about re­lief as it is jol­lity. “Af­ter the year we had last year, things feel so much more pos­i­tive,” he says. The farm­ing com­mu­nity was fac­ing a real night­mare be­cause of heavy rain­fall: the re­al­ity of throw­ing crops away. Cri­sis calls to the Farm­ing Com­mu­nity Net­work helpline dou­bled. “We had the worst year of rain that this area has ex­pe­ri­enced for a cen­tury,” Henry says. “Usu­ally we’d get 26in a year – last year it was 54in, and most of that fell be­tween June and Septem­ber, our peak har­vest time.” Pota­toes only have about 24 hours un­der wa­ter be­fore they rot, so the har­vest be­came a race against time for farm­ers like Henry. A 25 per cent yield re­duc­tion was com­mon across the county. Farm­ers start to plant in Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber for the fol­low­ing year, so ev­ery as­pect of their op­er­a­tion was af­fected. An­other lo­cal potato farmer, Frank Green, had to re­sort to des­per­ate mea­sures. A quar­ter of his crop was still in the ground in Novem­ber, ex­plains Pa­trick Lewis, from Gam­ber, the agri­cul­tural pro­duce com­pany that co­or­di­nates the grow­ing op­er­a­tion and lo­gis­tics for Tyrrells. “He had to find £380,000, the price of a house, for a self-pro­pel­ling har­vester that could lift pota­toes out of the wa­ter­logged soil. If it had been left a week longer the whole crop would have been lost.” Add to that the fact that the fields need at least a five-year ro­ta­tion and it’s no won­der that our potato farm­ers have had to di­ver­sify; his­tor­i­cally in Here­ford­shire it was all about pota­toes, but many farms (3,000-acre Co­brey Farms in­cluded) now grow as­para­gus, rhubarb, black­ber­ries and vines. “Their re­silience is amaz­ing,” says Pa­trick. “With the weather of the last few years, pota­toes have been a gam­ble, and there are no sub­si­dies.” How­ever, the crisp mar­ket has boomed dur­ing the re­ces­sion, so year-round de­mand is grow­ing. “Th­ese guys just crack on when con­di­tions are favourable.” And thank good­ness, now they are. Ev­ery­thing is three weeks late, a knock-on ef­fect of last year, but the crop is healthy and plen­ti­ful. I climb on the har­vester to wit­ness hun­dreds of ‘Lady Rosetta’ pota­toes, with their cricket-ball shape and strong potato flavour, whizzing into the hop­per. It’s an ef­fi­cient but del­i­cate process, ex­plains Rob, who’s man­ning the ma­chine. “We have eight cam­eras to show us what’s hap­pen­ing as they’re dug up and loaded,” he tells me, point­ing around the cabin. “We have to make sure they don’t bruise from be­ing jos­tled or fall­ing too hard.” This end of the county, with its sandy red soil, is per­fect for grow­ing “early” pota­toes – that is, gen­uinely “new” pota­toes that the Potato Coun­cil has been high­light­ing this year while en­cour­ag­ing us to “cel­e­brate the Bri­tish sea­son”. Real new pota­toes are not just small pota­toes, they are a sea­sonal crop har­vested be­tween May and Oc­to­ber and on the shelf within days. With their eas­ily scraped skins, they don’t last in store – un­like pota­toes grown at Tyrrells Court Farm, where the clay soil is heav­ier – and so are taken straight from the field and turned into crisps, with their jack­ets still on. They “lift” pota­toes as close as pos­si­ble to when the crisps are needed to cap­ture their fresh­ness, so lo­cal means ev­ery­thing. Tyrrells’s all-time record of lift­ing, pro­cess­ing and de­liv­er­ing crisps to Lud­low Food Cen­tre farm shop took 43 min­utes. This year, even seeds that were once sourced in Scot­land or York­shire came from within 40 miles. The ‘Lady Roset­tas’ we’re dig­ging up to­day, a per­fect “chip­ping” va­ri­ety, are some of the best Henry has seen for two years, with the de­sired 12-20 pota­toes per root. The year be­fore last, there were drought prob­lems; the ideal grow­ing tem­per­a­ture is 18-23C, and in 2011 it reached 28C, shock­ing the pota­toes so they stopped grow­ing, then started off in­fe­rior sec­ondary growths when the tem­per­a­ture cooled. When it comes to crisps, ev­ery­thing from size (they need to fit in the packet) to the starch con­tent – which can af­fect the colour when they are fried – mat­ters, so va­ri­eties are cho­sen with great care. Once the pota­toes have been graded, clods re­moved, and washed, it’s time for the fun. At Tyrrells Court Farm, sliced pota­toes are “swooped” through cook­ing oil, whizzed about tum­ble-drier style to shake it off, then danced up and down in chutes, be­ing dressed with their sea­son­ing, be­fore they are in­spected for the per­fect curl, crunch and flavour. As for those red, white and blues, the grower has done the ground­work; they emerge like pot­pourri, al­most too good to eat… al­most. The crisp­ing process is sim­ple, and the act of crunch­ing into them so ca­sual it be­lies the pains that are taken where their jour­ney be­gins. As Pa­trick Lewis re­flects, “With­out the ded­i­ca­tion and pas­sion of the lo­cal grow­ers, quite sim­ply we are noth­ing.”

AN­DREW CROW­LEY

Chip­ping in: ‘Lady Roset­tas’ are per­fect for crisps, main and bot­tom left; red and blue va­ri­eties, cen­tre; Pa­trick Lewis, cen­tre left; farmer Henry Chinn, top

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