Exporting seed potatoes from the Highlands of Scotland

Growing seed potatoes in Scotland can be quite a lucrative business with buyers from all over the world knocking on the door to buy them. Up in the Highlands of Scotland the growing conditions for potatoes can be quite challenging given the harsh weather but it does have its advantages too, with excellent soil being one of them writes Chris McCullough.

Mike Martin runs Garguston Farm at Muir of Ord, on the Black Isle peninsula, with his sons Ali and Johnnie operating a mixed arable and beef enterprise. Included in the mix, the Martins grow 1,094 acres of spring barley destined for the whisky distilleries, 80 acres of oats, 70 acres of winter barley and 285 acres of seed potatoes.

The farm also grows 40 acres of silage which they take two cuts from and graze the remaining 120 acres. All told they farm just under 1,700 acres of which 700 are owned, 150 are held via a tenancy and the rest contract farmed. All the barley goes for malting with 50 percent of the total tonnage going to Highland Grain just down the road from the Martin farm.

Johnnie is in charge of the potato side of the farming business which is one of only 26 farms in Britain that are pre-basic seed potato growers. The seed potatoes are sold via eight merchants but mostly via Saltire Seed which is a farmer owned co-operative.

They also sell to three Dutch companies and to others including Irish Potato Marketing, Branson and Greenvale. Johnnie said: “While the majority is sold through the merchants, we also sell 20 percent directly to estates and small farms in England and some at the end of the road in our Spud Hut on an honesty basis. It is supplemented with locally sourced eggs and vegetables,” he added.

Egypt is by far the biggest customer for Scottish potatoes but the Martins have also exported their potatoes as far away as Brazil, Israel, Iraq, Morocco and the Canary Islands as well as to Russia and Poland.

“On average we harvest around 14 tonnes of potatoes per acre,” said Johnnie. “All the potatoes are harvested and graded in-house by ourselves. We have long term Polish workers here who are a great asset to the farm, some of whom have been with us for over ten years,” he added.

The Black Isle has some of the most fertile soils in Scotland, mostly grade two and three which is a stark contrast to the rocky outcrops on the Western Isles. “All told we harvest around 4,000 tonnes of potatoes per year and export about 800 tonnes. Egypt pays in the region of £380 per tonne for our potatoes which are top quality,” said Johnnie.

The Martins have reported this season has been quite poor for growth so far which is adding to the cost of production. Johnnie and his team spray the potatoes once per week to combat blight.

As with most farms in the European Union the Martins receive their Single Farm Payment or subsidy from Brussels which brings in £80,000 per year. Ali added: “The subsidy is around five per cent of our total turnover. I’m not being arrogant, but it wouldn’t kill us to lose it.”

Looking after the land and crops is very important for the Martins in their management programme during the year along with maintaining good soil condition high up on the list. “It is of vital importance that we look after our soil. With that in mind we spread solid farmyard manure from the beef herd on all the arable land. And we ensure the correct crop rotations are implemented.

“On our farm we do believe in using Roundup pre-harvest and it would be a disaster if Europe banned it,” said Ali. “The winter barley is sown in September, harvested in July; spring barley is sown in March and harvested in September and the potatoes are planted in April or May and harvested from August to October.

“Laureate is the main variety of spring barley we sow as it is a very high yielding spring malting barley with an excellent disease and agronomic profile. On average it yields around 3.5 tonnes to the acre with us,” added Ali.

The Martins use a fleet of machines with precision technology to sow or plant their crops and maintain them during the growth stages. “We plough everything in the first instance,” said Ali. “And we sow seeds using precision technology that has accuracy of two centimetres. The main tractors and self-propelled sprayers all use GPS for their operations.”

In terms of machinery the Martins opt to use their own rather than be part of a local machinery pool. “We run Fendt and John Deere tractors,” said Ali. “There is a Fendt 828 Vario and a Fendt 936 costing around £155,000 each. There are two John Deere 6130 models and a 6140 model too.

“Two Bateman self-propelled sprayers look after all the spraying requirements. We replace the machinery regularly and buy them with warranties of 6,000 hours and over,” he said.