The fine art of growing top quality spuds
Tim and Ellie Pike operate a busy potato growing business utilising paddocks they lease from farms throughout the mid-Canterbury region. Tim moved to New Zealand from England in 2005, initially working for an agricultural contracting business then a large-scale potato grower.
The couple also bought a spraying contract business in 2007. Since 2011, Tim and Ellie have concentrated on growing top quality seed and processing potatoes.
“We grow potatoes for eight different markets. Mid-Canterbury has two large potato processing factories, McCains and Talleys, and we sell seed to the farmers who grow for them. About two-thirds of our seed potatoes go to the North Island,” Tim explains.
Conditions under foot with light fertile soils in mid-Canterbury are ideal for growing potatoes Tim says. Potatoes are also exported to Fiji through Turners and Growers.
With a catchment of nearly 200 hectares planted in potatoes Tim says investment in machinery and infrastructure is vital to future-proof the business. Come July each year, Tim’s role is to talk to his group of farmers he leases land off, to ascertain which paddocks suit their own farming system as well as his.
Soil samples are analysed through July and August to confirm fertility levels and pH.
Once the results are known Tim can then decide which variety of potato to grow and the level of fertiliser each paddock needs to produce top quality potatoes from. “Cultivation takes place from September and toward the end of that month we begin planting.”
First areas planted are the lower altitude paddocks and we progressively plant higher up through October to the end of November.
Seed potatoes are planted close together to limit tuber size to under 60mm. These crops take 80 – 100 days to grow to the ideal size.
Process potatoes are grown much bigger so are planter further apart to give the plants room to grow bigger tubers. These crops take up to 150 days to grow to their potential.
“We have to watch them like a hawk. If they grow too big they are worth half as much. I do a lot of kilometres in my job checking on how the plants are growing and monitoring the development of the potatoes beneath the soil.”
“When the potato plant is small you don’t want them under any stress and providing water is critical at this time, whereas once the plant is well established you don’t want to over-water,” says Tim.
Once the potatoes are ready for harvest, the work rate goes from busy to intense and while most are enjoying some down-time over Christmas and the New Year, for Tim and Ellie and their contractors there’s no letting up until all the potatoes have been dug up.
Over this time Tim employs upwards of a dozen casual employees. Harvest doesn’t start until the end of Feb.
We are busy over Christmas and new year monitoring seed crop size and spaying them off when they are at optimum size.
The volumes of potatoes Mid-Canterbury Growers produces has been steadily increasing each season.
3,500 tonne of seed potatoes are produced each growing season while 2,500 tonne of processing potatoes are extracted from the ground. By the beginning of July the harvest is in and Tim says this is where he and Ellie can enjoy a calmer period of activity.
Growing seed potatoes is an intense process and requires a lot of detail. These potatoes are marketed through Eurogrow and ALMAC.
Meanwhile, while Tim is out and about monitoring the crop of potatoes and discussing future land options with farmers Ellie is just as busy running the office at the company’s yard in Rakaia.
“It is a good life, but very full-on especially during planting. We employ back-packers to help with the sorting of the harvest which is a nice aspect to our business.”
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