Adaptability and good quality behind Rowe Farming's higher sales

Rowe Farming's blueprint for a successful operation.

Rowe Farming: success growing potatoes and daffodils
Rowe Farming: success growing potatoes and daffodils

Taking advantage of soils and climates at different locations around the UK, together with strength of expertise, the ability to adapt and a strong belief in quality products, has seen a grower increase sales year on year.

Rowe Farming, based near Helston in Cornwall, was established as a mixed farm comprising vegetables and dairy in the 1950s but in 2001 a decision was taken by the family-run firm to focus on early-season potatoes. A few years later, daffodils were brought in to complement the potatoes and supply a longer season. More recently a part-cash, part-equity acquisition by Produce Investments resulted in the additional advantages of being aligned to Greenvale AP.

Today the Rowe Farming operation extends to 4,000 acres, including land in Cornwall, Cambridgeshire and Scotland. Just over 2,500 acres in Cornwall are down to daffodils grown for cut flowers in the spring and dry bulbs for a summer harvest. With more than 100 varieties under production, and supported by the Cornish climate, flower picking begins at the end of December or early January and continues right through to April. Picking is by hand. Last year 40 million bunches were sold, mostly to supermarkets.

"What customer doesn't love daffodils? It's the first flower-buy of the year and they are affordable," points out Rowe Farming commercial director Cari Davies. "Bigger bunches are appealing to retailers and a lot of supermarkets are investing in displays. We believe in the quality of the product and skill of the retailer." Produce Investments marketing manager Tracey Mattock adds: "Last season 65 per cent of people bought daffodils. A lot are making repeat purchases."

With a choice of sites, Rowe Farming can choose where to put the crops. "In Cornwall our land is quite varied and stretches from St Buryan in the west up to Roche," says Davies. In 2013, bulbs were planted on 100 acres north of Perth, Scotland, to extend the season another two or three weeks.

"Soil structure and organic matter are key to us. We are looking for seven-, eightor nine-year leases," explains production director Dan Collins. Planting, usually one variety per field, begins in July and continues through to September. A base fertiliser is used in the seed bed. Bulbs are in the ground on a threeto five-year rotation. In the fifth year, bulb yield reaches maximum so they are harvested, graded, dried and packed for sale in the UK and for export to Europe and America.

Machinery adapted

To cope with the Cornish landscape, especially the steep slopes, machinery has been adapted for harvesting the bulbs. Linked to a Findt reversible tractor, the Combi Star de-stoner, onion paddle and potato harvester combination will pick uphill and downhill because the pitch and twist can be changed to suit the terrain.

"The larger bulbs go to retailers, the smaller ones will be replanted," explains Collins. The natural resource of the sun is used for drying lifted bulbs out in the fields but there are also drying halls with gas driers at the main operations site. Cleaning and grading are computer-controlled and bulbs are checked for quality and size. "Quality control is essential," says Collins. "It is an active job and the same worker is in charge whether it is the flowers, potatoes or daffodil bulbs."

Collins admits one of the biggest challenges on flower crops is disease, especially Botrytis, mould and basal rot on bulbs. Stem nematodes can also be a problem for bulbs. "The continued vigilance and assessment of our agronomy programme is key. We work on a large crop rotation, with bulbs only going into the ground once every eight or nine years, and we have a large sterilisation operation."

Potatoes fit the schedule with early Cornish varieties often ready in early April, but the main production site is near March in Cambridgeshire, where soils provide quality salad potatoes. A large proportion of the crop goes to sister company Greenvale.

Rowe Farming employs all labour directly, including a lot of migrant workers, and has its own recruitment team. It also provides accommodation on-site.

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