With Covid-19 advice and regulations urging people to stay at home since March, last year, there’s been a growing interest in gardening.
One agricultural supplier who benefitted from this and has worked to encourage it, is Potato House, based at Auchterhouse, just outside Dundee. This is a brand created some years ago by the firmly established, Skea Organics, to distinguish its trade in heritage and specialist spud varieties which, although certified free of disease, may not be grown under strictly organic conditions.
Amy Skea explained the unexpected benefit of lockdown: “In spring, 2020, we saw a boom in small scale orders, so we have revamped our website to be more user friendly and accessible to people who are not experienced commercial growers.
“It is dedicated to the gardeners and passionate, small growers who are looking for high quality seed potatoes with a unique taste and specific characteristics. Local buyers can collect their orders direct from the farm.”
Amy’s husband, Andrew, runs the sales side of the business while his brother, John, produces the crop. Andrew pointed out: “As a company, most of our harvest is organic seed for commercial growers, but we grow more than 80 varieties in total. As well as specialist varieties, our range includes ware potatoes for shops, box schemes and restaurants.”
In November, 2020, the Skea family celebrated 50 years of farming and growing potatoes at Auchterhouse. Andrew and John’s parents, John and Mary, moved to East Mains Farm, having previously farmed at Kilry, in Angus.
East Mains was converted to organic in 1999 and has been one of the leading producers of organic seed potatoes since then. The family produce a mix of gluten-free oats, vegetables, beef and sheep, which together created a sustainable crop rotation for the farm.
Making the most of their new niche market, in addition to the website, Amy has a lively and attractive Facebook page where she does more than just promote the brand. The company publicised a national Grow Your Own project and participated by donating seed to local primary schools.
On the page, Amy runs competitions and shares links to customers’ social media, magazines and other groups to build a community of interest for enthusiastic growers. She acknowledged the honesty of one horticultural blogger, mentioning her disappointment that her seed potatoes arrived unwashed, not matching the shiny versions advertised!
The images of pink and purple fleshed tubers, bowls of colourful mash and tonally ringed crisps catch the eye while the more definitive array of stock, displaying characteristic tuber shapes and skin colours alongside the cut section of each variety, attracts the attention of the serious grower and the adventurous cook.
A Facebook confession that the next generation of young Skeas share their names – Catriona, Morag and Calum – with spud varieties, attests to the family’s obsession with the crop and the open, friendly nature of their internet presence.
Meanwhile, following a boom year for Potato House, Brexit has pulled the rug from under the feet of our national seed potato market. Scottish seed producers traditionally supply both UK and European ware growers, who benefit from Scotland’s high health status, which in turn is a benefit from our cold Northern climate, which is generally too harsh for the diseases which devastate crops grown in milder climes.
Since leaving EU, the UK is forbidden to export seed or ware to EU and it has also hit the Potato House’s trade in heritage-style potatoes. Amy added: “France, Holland and Germany love yellow potatoes, which people in the UK would turn their nose up at. We have built a market supplying EU growers with the seed varieties they need, but we have had to close our online shop to customers in the EU and Northern Ireland.
“Until our government and the EU can agree a dynamic alignment of seed potato certification and plant health standard, we cannot predict what markets will be available to us at harvest, but we need to plan this year’s planting for the season ahead.”
While it seemed likely that pressure on both sides of the Channel would bring about agreements to enable export, hope is now fading that exports to EU and Northern Ireland will be possible for next season.
Even if there is last minute intervention, it will probably be too costly to continue the increased number of smaller scale orders to the EU that Potato House has developed.
Certification, phytosanitary and other logistical issues may be borne on large orders to commercial growers, but sadly, they will make smaller parcel and single pallet orders unviable.
But, on the bright side, there are also those legions of new gardeners out there in lockdown looking to grow something really different, colourful and tasty for the table. And now you know where to get them.
Heritage Spuds the Skeas are growing this year
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