While farming is often described as one of Jersey’s traditional industries, it has arguably embraced more change than the globally-focused finance sector.
Few other industries have experienced such rapid consolidation and faced the challenges of static prices but rising costs, labour shortages, changing consumer demand and competition from elsewhere, all within a few short years.
And while finance argues it has built resilience by diversifying into specialisms, such as funds and private equity, Jersey’s farmers export one crop, the Jersey Royal potato, for around three months of the year.
This is because it is the only one that pays.
Pictured: Peter uses a tractor which auto-steers from a GPS satellite and is accurate to within half a centimetre.
Add in Brexit, pressure to use fewer chemicals, and demand for development land in Jersey, you could argue that farming in Jersey is a perilous state.
But that is not the case, according to Peter Le Maistre, a grower who is also president of the Jersey Farmers Union. On the contrary, Mr Le Maistre is optimistic, pointing out that for all the talk of a future of smart vehicles, AI and GPS-guided drone delivery systems, farming is embracing that technology now.
He spoke to Express…
Taking a break from digging next year’s seed potatoes, Peter Le Maistre sat down to reflect on his industry towards the end of another busy season.
Like most seasons, it’s had its ups and downs, but looking long term, he is optimistic that Jersey’s primary crop - grown on around 15,000 vergées each year - has a solid future.
Pictured: Peter said that Jersey Royals were one of the few seasonal products still being sold.
“We still have a strong brand name and, after King Edward’s, we’re probably the best known potato in the UK,” he said.
“Also, we are one of the very few seasonal products left, and supermarkets are very keen on that. There is no seasonality in, say, lettuce anymore, and you can even buy strawberries 12 months of the year.
“But the Jersey Royal is still March to early July, and that is it. It is also a seasonal product at a time that people want to change as winter moves into spring and summer. It has a strong following just for that association.”
“And then there’s the taste. There are other varieties of potato that have certainly improved in flavour, but the Jersey Royal is still right up there as one of the most flavoursome potatoes on sale.
“We’re also pretty good at growing it, there is a huge wealth of knowledge and passion among those farmers left, and the supermarkets recognise that.”
Pictured: "“We may attract more people into our industry if we say to young people: ‘do you want to cut cauliflowers when it’s minus 2, or do you want to come and drive a robot?’"
Not those words: “farmers left.” It’s our first reference to the huge changes that have, quite literally, altered the landscape of Jersey. Twenty years ago, there were still hundreds of small, independent growers producing Jersey Royals; now there are about a dozen.
The many farmers also exported many crops, from tomatoes to courgettes. Now, aside from a few pallets of vegetables, only Jersey Royals are shipped north.
Peter explains why: “If you look at farming across the UK and Europe, small farms are going out of business. Here, it is no different; in fact, it’s even easier to find a viable alternative for your land.
“The year 2000 was the watershed for the potato industry. Farmers were asking then: “Am I going to invest another half a million pounds when I am 50-or-so years old? Or am I going to sell and let my land and sheds?” Most of those who chose the latter were probably better off than when they were still farming.
“In a way, it is good that Jersey growers have that choice, whereas if you’re stuck on a mountainside in Wales, you don’t. Here, if you can rent your sheds or staff accommodation out for non-agricultural purposes, you’ll be much better off.”
Pictured: “We are already using more natural fertilisers and pest-control and we are in a strong position because we have relied on things like vraic, which is still used predominantly on the sandy soils of the west."
The shake out was accompanied by the ascendancy of the Jersey Royal Company and Albert Bartlett, which invested millions of pounds in plant and equipment to meet another challenge: the move away from large Royals exported loose to smaller potatoes, washed and packaged.
The farmers who remain have also invested substantially in technology, from machines that plant potatoes - always traditionally done by hand - to GPS-guided tractors and machines that apply fertilizer with pinpoint accuracy.
“Farming is a modern industry. My father planted potatoes with a horse and used a piece of string to get his first row straight,” he said. “Now, I sit in a tractor, which auto-steers from a GPS satellite and is accurate to within half a centimetre. I’m still getting used to not touching the wheel.
“We may attract more people into our industry if we say to young people: ‘do you want to cut cauliflowers when it’s minus 2, or do you want to come and drive a robot?’ The future of farming is the latter, which is technically pretty challenging and far more interesting, I’d say, to the next generation.”
Peter’s own son and nephew work on their Grouville-based farm and there is interest from young people, particularly in the dairy industry, but the industry recognises that it cannot just rely on children following their parents.
“Whether the next generation is coming through is the million-dollar question. We need more young people, there is no doubt about that. And there are opportunities: I would say that if a young person knocked on a farmer’s door tomorrow and said: ‘I want a future in this industry’, they would be taken on as an apprentice.
“And take the Jersey Royal Company, for example: you can join them as an accountant, mechanic, electrician, health and safety, HR etc. That is another way in, without having to make a financial investment. Farming really is a fantastic career for those that want it.”
Pictured: "My argument to the Government is: if you want to keep our potato and dairy industry going, you’ve got to support us the same as other places. Otherwise, how can we ever compete?”
Looking ahead at another aspect of sustainability, Mr Le Maistre predicts farming in Jersey will continue to use far fewer chemicals than it did in the past.
“We are already using more natural fertilisers and pest-control and we are in a strong position because we have relied on things like vraic, which is still used predominantly on the sandy soils of the west."
“In the last ten years we have had to do a lot of work on cleaner water, the branchage, biodiversity and gaining LEAF accreditation, and the growers are all keen to do more. All of them are very passionate; they wouldn’t put the hours in if they weren’t.
“I find it annoying at times when people say: ‘Farmers are ruining the soil’. Most of the people still farming have been doing it for generations; you can’t sustain a farm for that long if you don’t look after the soil.
“This year, we have not used one chemical on our export crop for eelworm, because there simply aren’t any available. On our farm, we had one field where we saw eelworm and we had a reduced yield. That field will come out and we’ll put it over to grass for a couple of years, and I’m sure others would have had a similar experience.
“Some of the bio-controls, such as prickly potato and hot mustards, are quite interesting and effective. It is also getting the potatoes out at the right time and spacing out your planting etc, which is all down to the expertise of the grower.
“We still use artificial fertiliser, but the rates have reduced by 20%, and we’re getting the same yields.
“That is being reflected in the amounts of nitrates in the water. The fall is down to much more accurate equipment, which places fertiliser rather than broadcasts it widely and also prevents overlapping on irregular-shaped fields.
“Spraying by drone is likely in the near future. They can identify weeds over a wide area and spot-spray on the individual weed itself.”
Pictured: “We’re using technology to drive down costs and improve efficiencies, as well as reducing our reliance on chemicals. It is an exciting time to be part of it.”
Mechanisation, including sophisticated planters and harvesters, has also reduced the need for labour. The industry now employs far fewer workers than it used to, although retaining a supply of staff at key times is still important.
“As a rule of thumb, one person can plant a vergée of potatoes a day. Now, with a machine, that man can plant 12 vergées; I’d say that we can complete close to the final half of the season with planters.
“Farmers in Jersey are not scared of technology and are always keen to embrace it: the JFU, with some Government support, has put in a request to Lincoln and Cambridge universities to develop a robotic planter for the earlier slopes, which we currently have to do by hand. We think that that will be around two years in development.
“The fact is, we are still going to need labour, but it is very costly. The Filipinos have been fantastic and we had about 75 for the season. We have had a lot of requests for them to come back, which is always great to hear; and they want to come back, too.
“As an industry, we have to save money whenever we can so if it’s cheaper to plant with a planter, we will. And we are harvesting a lot quicker now with fewer staff. The pack houses are also using a lot more technology, such as grading equipment.
“But a new grading line, for example, costs £1m so while your labour costs will go down, your capital costs go up, and it takes a while to make a return. There are Government productivity schemes but the amount of money in them is so small - I think the total this year was around £115,000.”
Like farming across the western world, its future in Jersey is entwined with state support, especially as the subsidies offered here are among the lowest in the world.
“If you look at the amount per capita in Jersey that is spent by the general public on subsidising farming, only New Zealand is lower than us.
“In 2008, the tomato industry closed down in Jersey because the Government refused to support it. But the money wasn’t destined for the grower; it was going to the business.
“When you buy a pound of tomatoes, whether they’re Spanish or Dutch, the European taxpayer is subsidising that product, for you to pay 50p a pound.
“My argument to the Government is: if you want to keep our potato and dairy industry going, you’ve got to support us the same as other places. Otherwise, how can we ever compete?”
The protection of land is also crucial to the future of the industry, especially with more fields being rotated because more natural fertilizers and pesticides are used.
“Personally, I think we might see a slight reduction in the area of potatoes grown, but we actually need more land to sustain an increased area because bio-controls aren’t quite as effective as chemicals. We are ok at the moment, but we don’t want to see any more land lost.
“Building development is obviously a threat and I disagree that bringing in lots of wealthy residents is helpful because they tend to expect to own the land around them and don’t want anything to happen on it, except perhaps apple trees or garden features.”
But despite the threats, with Government support farming, Mr Le Maistre sees a healthy future for the industry. And Brexit could even be a catalyst for a long-overdue adjustment on food prices, which could make other crops profitable again, although he concedes that is far from certain.
“The farmers have such a passion for and knowledge of their industry,” he said. “We’re using technology to drive down costs and improve efficiencies, as well as reducing our reliance on chemicals. It is an exciting time to be part of it.”
The island’s biggest producer, Jersey Royal Company, has been working with Digital Jersey recently to understand how the use of drones can improve the efficiency and quality of the Jersey Royal crop each year.
The drone carries a high-definition camera, which will take hundreds of photos per field to create an ‘orthomosaic’ map, which has a uniform scale throughout, giving map-like accuracy to the stitched-together image.
Then, using algorithms, it is possible to identify topography and plant health, showing where it might be necessary to remedy key issues such as irrigation and disease.
Sebastian Lawson of Digital Jersey said: “We are also looking to help with utilisation of multispectral photography to help the Jersey Royal Company learn more about the different fields and soils around the Island.
“The varying colour bands which can be captured by a multispectral camera enable algorithms to assess the various soil nutrition levels and thus allow intervention such as precision fertilisation, preventing wastage and creating a more sustainable model.”
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