It is 38 years since I first came to the Fens of Lincolnshire as a final year agric student from Newcastle University for a job interview as a trainee farm manager for a local family’s farming business, writes Richard Barlow.
While here it snowed so hard I couldn’t get back to Newcastle as the A1 was completely blocked with snow and abandoned cars. I did manage to get back to Coventry, my home town and had to wait two days before the A1 was cleared. Just imagine the chaos if that happened now! There was no ‘just in time’ deliveries in those days and supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury’s were only just starting out on their march to retail dominance.
Little did I realise back then that I was going to be privileged to farm some of the best soils, not only in the UK but probably anywhere. Along the way I have tried to grow commercially over 20 different crops, but the one crop that has stood out above all else is the humble potato. The quality of potatoes grown on the silts of South Holland is renowned and unmatched anywhere else.
Luckily, the multiples haven’t managed to control the price of potatoes, partially because there is still a significant percentage sold to independent chip shops, but also because the fixed price contracts that they have offered are always too close to the actual cost of production to allow a sensible return on the £2,500 to £3,000 per acre it costs to grow them, so growers have refused to sign up to them. Long may the free market work!
I remember when I started work being told that potato growing means that in a five-year period you’ll have three years when you’ll cover costs and perhaps a modest profit, one year when you’ll lose a bucket full of money and one when you’ll stop being grumpy. At the moment I’m quite happy!
Certainly we don’t seem to get the severe winters that occurred regularly 40+ years ago, but whether man can influence the changes that are happening in our climate, I’m in the doubtful camp.