3Ms open new potato grading facility

3Ms (Three Musketeers) have been operating since 2001 and now have six farming shareholders who between them farm more than 34,000 acres. After nearly 18 months of careful investigation, they recently opened their new potato grading line, which is based at their site on the ex-USAF airbase at Bentwaters, near Woodbridge.

A large number of guests went along in mid-May to see the new operation officially opened by Dr Therese Coffey. Dr Coffey has been MP for the Suffolk Coastal region since 2010 and is currently the Conservative candidate in the next general Election. She has also been the Minister at DEFRA dealing with flooding and coastal problems.

Edward Blanchard, managing director for 3Ms, said: “This is a project that has been talked about for several years and has finally come to fruition. We’re a relatively small company, particularly in terms of our number of employees, so it’s a massive achievement to be able to put such a modern piece of equipment into our business. As a company owned by collaborating growers here in Suffolk and working to market their produce, it’s imperative that we generate the best return from every sale that we make”.

Mr Blanchard said the new grader will help sales to existing customers as well as opening doors to new ones. It will allow 3Ms to grade potatoes on behalf of other growers in the area which was of mutual benefit to everyone concerned.

Praising 3Ms investment and vision to bring this new grading line into operation, Dr Coffey said: “As a Minister for DEFRA, it is very encouraging to see farmers investing in the future in these difficult times. This equipment adds considerable value to this important potato growing region, with 3Ms having found a solution to increase their output while saving money. I know they are also keen to help other farms in Suffolk realise higher values for their crops.”

3Ms needed a new building to house the grading line, and this was erected in a “record-breaking” eight weeks by PFG Fabrication. 3Ms were successful in gaining a Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) grant in conjunction with the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) and received £250,000 towards the investment. This is one of the largest projects in the country to be funded by these grants and, after reviewing the business plan for 3Ms, HSBC provided the finance for the remaining investment.

Three Musketeers’ growers wanted to get their grading right and maximise their income from the smaller-sized fractions within the crops, while still adding value to the larger sizes that are no longer in demand from the UK retailers. 3Ms are looking to add more value to the sales they have currently, by serving the retail packers with specific sizes and selling the rest elsewhere.

The new SUPAFILL 600 potato grading line was supplied by Haith, with some equipment also coming from Tomra and Dijkstra. It will offer an increased hourly output, and will reduce the requirement for the older and less efficient graders on site to be used as much as they were previously. The inbuilt infra-red sorter removes stones and soil from the potatoes before they pass through visual grading by trained staff and are then sorted into sizes by the vertical grading module.

The early variety Swift is already being run through the grader with great success. 3Ms growers planted this, along with another 900 acres of crop under fleece to enable their crops to be ready for sale as early as possible in the season.

3Ms who were featured in The Vegetable Farmer in March last year, are a major supplier of new and early maincrop potatoes to the fresh potato market. Around 95% of their potatoes and onions go to major retailers and processors with the remainder being sold to local wholesalers and retailers. The group of six farms has expanded its business considerably in recent years, with an increased acreage and tonnage of potatoes. Each farm operates its own staff and planting/growing/harvesting equipment.

By Richard Shepherd-Barron.