A huge cold store, dozens of farm machinery including planters, sprayers and graders and a lush potato crop, welcome one to Jamie Rankin’s farm in Donegal, Ireland.
The farmer grows the crop on 300 acres and is one of the largest growers in the 5 million people nation, the home of Irish potatoes.
On this day, a Kenyan delegation had visited him to learn how the Irish grow their potatoes, with farmers harvesting up to 50 tonnes per hectare.
“This crop is about three weeks old,” says Rankin to the amazement of his audience. The potato crop is over 30cm tall, having grown faster thanks to good husbandry and seeds. “I grew it in early April and would harvest sometime in August.”
Rankin, whose farm has been growing potatoes since 1890, farms the Roosters variety, the most popular and high-yielding type in Ireland. Another popular variety is Kerr Pink.
“I grow the crop on six-year rotations on different sections of the farm. The last time this portion hosted potatoes was six years ago. I rotate the potato with wheat, barley or grass for dairy and beef cattle to break disease cycles and boost soil content,” offers Rankin, who grows potato for the table and for seeds.
All operations on the farm are mechanised, with the farmer using machines to plough, ridge the soil, plant, spray chemicals, and harvest.
He plants certified, disease-free seeds developed at the Tops Potato Propagation Centre, where it takes 12 years to come up with a variety.
To grow seeds, he buys tissue-culture seedlings from Tops. Each plant produces two mini-tubers for sale to growers like Dankin, who bulk them and then sale to other farmers.
Gerry Doherty, a manager at Tops, says with the advancement of science, testing of seed tubers to ensure freedom from especially viral diseases has become an integral part of their certification scheme.
Tops maintains a collection of 650 virus free potato varieties – for steaming, boiling, chipping and crisping.
WASHING DETERIORATES QUALITY
“I use 60 per cent certified seeds that go for 3 Euro cents (Sh3.6) each and recycle the rest from my previous harvest. The law demands that we use at least 40 per cent certified seeds,” says Rankin.
Before he plants, he applies chicken manure pre-season on the farm and later during planting, he uses 8:11:18 NPK fertiliser.
Thanks to the use of certified seeds and the strict crop rotation, Rankin and other potato farmers do not struggle with diseases like potato cysts nematodes, blackleg, ring rot and spindle tuber viroid. They also have no challenges with pests.
“Our main challenge is blight. I have to spray my potato crop against blight every 7 to 10 days throughout the season,” says the farmer, who grows the crop once a year.
Harvesting starts in August and is done by four people – father, son and two workers – and sales goes on for up a year.
Rankin harvests 120,000 tonnes at ago with machines putting the produce into one tonne boxes. He then grades them according to sizes and keeps in an imposing cold storage facility at 30C, where they stay for 11 months.
“Before I store, I do not wash them. Washing leads to deterioration of quality during storage. I sell my potatoes throughout the year,” he says, adding at most, he has eight workers on the farm.
Rankin’s potatoes and those from other farmers across the country have ready market at several factories, including Country Crest and Keogh’s Crisps, located on the outskirts of Dublin, the capital.
At Country Crest, they are cleaned, graded and packed into packs of various sizes for the big retail chains like Tesco and SuperValu.
Country Crest commercial manager Tony Doyle says their main work is to clean, grade and pack the potatoes according to standards set by the Irish Food Board and market needs of the retail chains.
“We supply the produce to the supermarkets in their branded packs. Out of the several products we make, only one is in our brand name,” says Doyle, whose company also imports onions and packs for the supermarkets, which control over 90 per cent of the retail market.
At Keogh’s Crisps, a potato processor based in North Dublin, the produce is processed for crisps with various flavours for the high-end market.
BETTER VARIETIES LEAD TO VIBRANT POTATO INDUSTRY
Ross Keogh, a director at the company, says the firm grows its own potatoes, but also buys in bulk from farmers.
“We make crisps mainly for the niche market that include the Emirates Airlines. The potatoes are washed, graded and sliced without peeling before they are fried at 1500C, flavoured and packed for the market,” says Tom.
Sean Owens of the IPM Potato Group says potatoes grow well in Ireland because of the ideal conditions that include 1,250mm of rainfall a year.
“But we have also invested heavily in research, especially on seeds to eliminate diseases and have the right varieties for specific purposes. The crop is grown on 9,000 hectares in Ireland but we get more than what we need and export.”
According to Owens, the ideal potato variety produces high yields, is resistant to diseases and has high acceptability in the market.
“The packer needs a differentiated product, that has no waste and keeps bringing in satisfied customers back while the consumer needs a delicious, healthy and nutritious product,” he observes.
Owens notes that development of new and better potato varieties is the key to a vibrant potato industry, and Kenya in particular Nyandarua County with weather conditions similar to Ireland can attain huge success.
Irish technology comes to Kenya
IPM Potato Group is working on bringing the Irish potato technology to Kenya.
The Irish company has partnered with Kevian Industries owned by businessman Kimani Rugendo to grow seed potatoes that will be bulked and sold to farmers.
“Kenya has an advantage over Ireland because unlike us who have one potato season, you can grow the crop during the long rains season, short rains season and through irrigation. Those are three seasons. And with the right seeds, production can rise from the current 10 tonnes per hectare,” Sean Owens of the IPM Potato Group says.