Why growing Early Potatoes in West Cornwall is like gambling at Monte Carlo (2007)

Visit to John Wallis farming in the ‘Golden Mile’ near Penzance.

John Wallis and his brother Bill farm in the ‘Golden Mile’ situated on the warm south-facing fertile land sloping down to the sea just outside Penzance. They started to grow leafy salad greens in 2005 for direct sales to local restaurants and hotels as an alternative to relying predominantly on supermarkets sales.

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The Wallis family have been in business on their current farm near Gulval in the Golden Mile since 1917. When you talk to John and his father the sheer passion and enthusiasm about farming in their special area of Cornwall the Golden Mile comes gushing to the surface. John is eager to show us around the farm and explain about the special quality of the soils.

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The fertility of this silty soil has been built up by years of refuse from Penzance – indicated by the little shards of pottery.

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James Wallis (John’s father – who John occasionally describes as the “Youth Employment Scheme worker” although he is in his 70’s!

John’s father has been involved with farming all his life – “From the age of 4-5 out in the yard feeding cattle and had pet cats and has been involved ever since”. Q Have the crops changed very much? “ I left school at the age of 14 during the war, and you couldn’t go wrong”. “Early tatties, broccoli, cabbage, endive and things like that (endive? – which you don’t see around so much now) – “it is a heck of a job you know to grow, we bust a gut to grow it didn’t we son.” “When I was young during the war – I was 17 – there was 30 people working here on this farm – 22 acres – of it – and we grew everything! – everything was by hand – a lot of daffodils, violets, forget me knots, anemones, iris, everything! , rhubarb, we had everything! here – nerines. We had a market garden in this area, of course it’s facing south,?hand marked fields? in the right part, facing the sea and you see its magic! –
Its magic! – It is magic! – John suggested it was a golden era in terms of farm incomes compared to modern times.

John shows us around the farmhouse. “Here we have what we call a Tattie barn – built around 100 year ago, to chit potatoes (to get them to shoot).” “As you know the railway came to Penzance about 150 years ago which lead to a boom in horticulture activity in the Golden Mile. And you can see what happened underneath the tattie barn was the stable and in a cold winter in a bad frost the heat from the house cows for the farmer and his family and horses would be enough to take the chill off they tatties and keep the frost off. And you could grow early potatoes! To get them out and steal a march on other parts of the country. The climatic advantage of the ‘Golden Mile’ kept us in business all those years.” “The farm is 100 acres – far too small to be a viable unit in other parts of the country but viable here because of that little climatic advantage in the Golden Mile.”

John is keen to tell us about the special wrought iron Penwith Gates (a local speciality) – which he still makes as a side line in his workshop.

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“Farmers in the ‘Golden Mile’ used to combining manure, sand and seaweed from nearby beaches to produce rich compost for their hungry sandy free
draining land.” “Farmers sometimes used to incorporating a Penwith gate in the middle of their compost heap. If the workers didn’t extract the gate the farmer knew they hadn’t done a proper job!” There is a modern twist to this tale – seaweed still piles up on the beaches around Penzance and is unsightly if left during the main tourist season. The washed up seaweed was being land filled until local farmers pointed out that it was traditionally used for composting.

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I asked John about his views relating to Global Warming. John said there were local effects that he had seen on his farm which may be masked by
regional or national forecast data. He said that weather during the winter time had become more unpredictable with more damaging short cold snaps affecting winter crops he also said that he had on one recent occasion received the average rainfall for November – but on one day and it had washed out a field of young cabbage. He also wondered what would happen to the weather in Cornwall if the warm Gulf Stream that provides farmers with an advantage in terms of early crop production shifted. “it warms the land like a mother holding a baby in her arms”

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John has some very interesting ideas in relation to making early potato production more sustainable. He is passion about the state of the soil in
which he grows his crops – and it is very special soil down on the Golden Mile.  John is very concerned about the use of plastic for the early potatoes and how unsustainable it is (he is very interested in seeing if there are opportunities for marketing potatoes that haven’t been forced under plastic and although the potatoes are not organic he says Cornish early potatoes have fewer sprays than in other areas of more intense early potato production.

John like many farmers is very resourceful at making things – including gates and I rang him once in a quite time running up to Christmas. I said what are you doing John? “I am building Santa’s Sledge” – which actually turned out to be a Broccoli harvesting rig!

On my second visit to Wallis farm – we went down to see his father in the potato field. “Father you remember Andrew don’t you?” John’s father said “Yes we were at Eton together!” in a broad West Cornwall accent. I jokingly replied “No I think it was the Guards”. We then had a look at the different varieties of Early potatoes in the field. “See this” – John’s father said – “this is brassy” looking at the lower yellow leaves of the potatoes – these are ready to lift – he said digging around in the soil.

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We moved over to a later variety of potatoes and John’s father said “See these – these are oily” – pointing at the leaves that were still green – the potatoes produced were very small. Early potatoes can bulk up their tubers very rapidly when growing conditions are right – so farmers have to check regularly. The problem is that the first potatoes that reach the market earn the farmers a good income and then the price starts to fall. John thinks of his early potatoes in completely different way to main crop potatoes – they are delicate and thin-skinned and easily damaged like strawberries – they should be consumed soon after harvest to be enjoyed at their best. The Wallis farm is too small at 100 acres to grow main crop potatoes – all the potato lifting equipment is small-scale compared to the very expensive state of the art main crop potato machinery.

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Although the early crop is of higher value compared to main crop potatoes – the price of the starting seed is high – hence the anxiety over the market price falling if too many earlies come on the market later in the season. As John said quoting another local farmer – “growing early potatoes is like gambling at Monte Carlo”!

©  Andrew Ormerod 2013

About cornucopiaalchemy

Dr. Andrew Ormerod has 14 years experience working as the Economic Botanist at the Eden Project - researching topical stories, artefacts, ethnobotanical inks, catering and retail links to exhibits. Previously I was involved with plant breeding and plant tissue culture working on a range of crops including winter cauliflowers, agricultural lupins, vining peas, wheat and barley and coconuts. I am now freelance and am interested in opportunities for lecturing; writing articles; consultancy linked to development of botanic gardens for crops based exhibits; supply chain work for unusual food or non-food crops with interesting stories about plants and people attached to them.
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