Interview - Andrew Wortley, managing director of OW Wortley & Sons of Methwold, South Norfolk

Andrew Wortley, managing director of OW Wortley & Sons of Methwold, South Norfolk - and joint winner of last year's Tesco Grower Long Service Award - has two mantras he likes to apply to growing potatoes: to "keep everything as simple as possible" and to "get involved with any changes or developments in the industry from the beginning".

Andrew Wortley of OW Wortley & Sons of Methwold - photo: Serena Shores
Andrew Wortley of OW Wortley & Sons of Methwold - photo: Serena Shores

It is this drive "to be aware of new things emerging and to get in first" that, coupled with the ongoing success of his working relationship with neighbouring EW Porter & Son, he believes to be one of the reasons why the 25-year-old co-operative won the award.

"I feel that our work to become specialists in the production of salad potatoes and involvement early on (1994) was significant," Wortley says.

The second principle of "keeping things simple" has meant that the original arrangement established between Wortley and EW Porter has remained the same. "We have taken up grant opportunities with building, but the co-operative side was always, and will continue to be, informal."

This consistency within the management of operations has translated into a consistency of supply, and has created the right environment for innovations to be made in the punnet business for pre-pack and investments in state-of-the-art, environmentally controlled box storage facilities in 1992. "Work is underway on a new unit that will bring total storage capacity to 6,500 tonnes."

Certain of his interest in growing potatoes, Wortley felt that the best way forward was to redirect the 81ha holding that his father and brother David "were doing a fine job running, producing the typical range of cereal crops and sugar beet" to include them.

But faced with a shortage of land and specialist equipment, he came up with the idea of pooling expertise with neighbouring farmers Edwin Porter and Ken Lawrence of Feltwell, trading under a Merchants Trading Licence.

The co-operative concentrated on Cara, Wilja, King Edward for general packing and some Russet Burbank for processing. "Our production was based on the wholesale business, grading and packing the potatoes on the farm. The smaller ones were going to the supermarkets and we were selling the larger ones - these were bagged and marketed as our own brand, St George."

Shifts during the early 1990s towards salad crops, baking potatoes and supermarkets opting for large potatoes led the co-operative to quit processing. Now it is organised around a division of tasks: "Ploughing and spraying being the responsibility of the individual farms, then working together using tractors and trailers for harvesting and Porter harvesting our sugar beet - it's about co-operation and sharing the cost of machinery in proportion to what we grow."

The arrangement with Tesco has also provided the stability and support to allow the addressing of the problems with irrigation, brought even more into focus by recent restrictions in bore and surface extraction in Norfolk.

"Extensive work and investment in an irrigation system means we can access six bore holes, five river extraction points and six reservoirs containing 150 million gallons of storage water," he says.

Employing 17 staff, the co-operative jointly grows around 405ha of Maris Peer, Marfona and Desiree - 80 per cent of which are contracted. Supplying any combination of sizes to meet customer requirements, Wortley uses independent agronomist Martin Cox of Blackthorn Arable to look after the crop.

But there is one poignant note. "Sadly, after a long battle with his health, we lost Edwin Porter at the start of the year," says Wortley. "His enthusiasm will be greatly missed."

With regard to the continued health of the farms' special relationship, Wortley says: "There are not many examples of this co-operative working. People come and talk to me and try it, but it just doesn't seem to last.

"The crunch is to always produce what the customer wants."

Whatever the future direction of the industry, Wortley will no doubt get involved, taking the simple yet efficient co-operative success story with him.

CV

1978: Graduates from Riseholme College, Lincolnshire, to join the family farm

1980: Gains Ware Merchants Licence

1984: Sets up potato growing co-operative with central grading and storage

1991: Changes from wholesale trading to pre-pack, securing supply contracts with supermarkets via Greenvale AP (formerly Appletree)

2007 Wins Tesco Grower Long Service Award with EW Porter & Son.


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