National Chip Week starts on Monday but for the Backhouse family who grow 150 acres of potatoes, every day is a chip day.
Stephen and Sally Backhouse moved to Greenland Hall near Rawcliffe Bridge from Goole Fields 19 years ago and their move heralded a change in the type of potato they could grow best and in the customers they supply.
Stephen, Sally and their two sons David and Edward can talk chips better than most. They know what their buyers are looking for and aim to produce the kind of chip that we look forward to eating from our local fish and chip shops. Stephen talks direct with the potato merchants that supply the shops and enjoys the cut and thrust of settling a deal in what is an ever-fluctuating market place.
“When we farmed in Old Goole our land produced a nicer skinned potato for the packing trade but we couldn’t seem to grow that on this land. Here it is predominantly warped silt over sand or clay, which is not quite as soft as the warped silt over peat we had been growing with previously. That’s why we started producing our potatoes wholly for the fish and chip shop trade.
“We now trade with potato merchants right along the M62 corridor as far as Liverpool although the lion’s share of our customers are in the West Riding. What they are looking for is a chip that is between white and golden. Brown chips do not sell and that’s why Sally often fries what we grow here to check on quality before a load is sold.
“Potatoes need to be kept at a consistent temperature so that the starch doesn’t turn into sugar because if it does when the chips fry then the sugar burns and you get a brown chip. We went down to London a number of years ago and sent back the chips that were served to us because they were brown and not golden.”
The days when King Edward and Maris Piper potato varieties reigned supreme are now long since gone in favour of newer, better shaped and higher yielding spuds. Stephen feels that there has also been a noticeable improvement in the marketability of Yorkshire produce.
“We grow mainly Ramos and an older variety called Victoria that we supply in 4st bags. We aim for around 20 tonnes an acre, but that hasn’t been possible for the past two years due to the weather. We dropped Maris Piper because of the variability in quality and because the merchants like the newer varieties.
“What has been a real change for the better in recent years has been the increased quality of chip shop potatoes grown in Yorkshire. For many years merchants would look first towards Lincolnshire because of its reputation, but I am now convinced that we have a group of potato farmers in Yorkshire that can grow and store just as well.”
One of the merchants whom they have maintained a relationship since they started is Bamford Bros of South Owram, Halifax. Richard Bamford and Stephen talk almost daily and when I visited Richard had just ordered an artic load for picking up the next day. He also grows potatoes as well as trading them and tells of what he is looking for from the Backhouse family.
“Potato varieties are like buying different brands of whisky. They all have their own merits and farmers such as Stephen are constantly looking at new ones. What people might not realise is that it takes seven years from a potato variety starting out as a seed to it coming on to the market. We take samples out to fish and chip shops for them to see how the variety fries.
“Ninety per cent of our end customers want a chip that is between white and golden. Potato quality is governed by moisture content and that generally means they need to be stored at eight degrees above freezing. Years ago the Pentland Squire and Pentland Crown varieties were popular. For a number of years Maris Piper has been the main variety but that has now had its day.”
The farming operation at Greenland Hall, officially the first farm in East Yorkshire coming from the west, runs to around 500 acres. The Backhouses also farm a further acreage for Stephen’s brother-in-law. They grow 250 acres of wheat, 100 acres of oilseed rape, a variable acreage of linseed and 25 acres of canary seed, which they came upon purely by chance and have developed a niche market product.
Away from the farm, Edward is currently training hard for the London Marathon 2014 since being accepted along with his wife Sara. They will be raising funds for Thyroid UK, a cause dear to his mum’s heart as Sally has suffered with thyroid problems for a large proportion of her life.
The family have many other involvements including Stephen’s membership of the Marshland Agricultural Society and memberships of the NFU, CLA and the Renewable Energy Association. They have a proud history of membership of the Young Farmers Clubs too, which is where Sally met Stephen when she was a member of Doncaster YFC and Stephen a member of Goole YFC. Edward and David have both held prominent positions with Goole YFC in years gone by and Sally is a parish councillor with Rawcliffe.
David’s partner Rachel is a farmer’s daughter from near Keyingham in Holderness.
Whilst in Stephen’s experience the potato price has never fluctuated as much as it has in the past two years the Backhouses are more committed than ever to the fish and chip shop trade.
“We love fish and chips and we sell potatoes from September right through to July,” says David.
“But what many people find fascinating is the timeline of our potatoes. We discuss which seed to plant for next year whilst harvesting this year’s crop in September. We order the seed before Christmas, it arrives in February and we plant it in March and April. It is then harvested from September and we could still be selling that crop the following June. That means it’s always a bit of a gamble, but then that’s what you do with chips isn’t it!”