In the past few years, growers of seed potatoes in the Netherlands have been judiciously investing in new grading techniques, and in doing so, they have demonstrated certain preferences. According to product specialist Jeroen Arends of TOLSMA-GRISNICH in Emmeloord, this is a direct consequence of increases in scale within the industry. Trends in growing and market outlets have also turned out to be decisive for new investments.
‘Growers change their varieties more often, while the variation within the total range has also increased. This means that the number of different seed potato batches within a single business is bound to increase’, says Arends. The criteria for size grading have also been tightened in recent years; 35/50 grading used to be quite common, whereas a size range of 5 mm is more usual these days. Another trend is that seed potato trading companies respond to specific market outlets by offering new varieties to retailers and the daily fresh market. As a result of this, the grading season has been extended and more flexibility is expected from growers. The delivery period for seed potatoes now starts in October and continues until late March.
Effective management is becoming increasingly complex
Although most grading installations are still functioning well, growers of seed potatoes are aware of increasing complexity in a number of management aspects; capacity and accuracy are not easy to combine in existing installations. The entrepreneurs who want to respond to prevailing trends require more skilled labour during the grading season, but skilled labour is often scarce, especially if multiple batches of varieties for French fries need to be delivered in a very short time during the spring season. This peak also leads to increased forklift truck movements, particularly if batches have to be re-graded for a smaller grading size.
Opting for continuity
The growing doubts among growers as to whether their existing installations can meet the required combination of accuracy, capacity and product-friendliness in the long term are justified. ‘Seed potato growers concerned about the continuity of their business management are making crucial decisions right now’, says Arends. ‘They are seeking solutions for their businesses that will permanently combine high capacity with minimum labour deployment and maximum flexibility, without detracting from product-friendliness. The choices they make now will affect their businesses for the next 15 to 20 years, and they are pretty tough choices’.
Don’t start with technology
Arends feels that the actual choice between buying a new installation or modifying an existing one starts with an awareness on the part of the grower that if he sticks with the current situation he is going to have major problems within the foreseeable future. And once that realisation has sunk in, trying to ascertain what is actually needed can get even trickier. Says Arends: ‘We shouldn’t be too keen to start thinking in terms of available technology, but rather we should start from the needs of the business. What are the functions that the grading line needs to fulfil and what will it take to remain flexible in the long run, and also provide sufficient capacity to respond to growth?’
Allowing key positions for functions
Working in consultation with the grower, Tolsma-Grisnich produces a product flow diagram on the basis of the product flow in relation to the functions. Such a diagram will pinpoint the functions and capacities that the installation has to meet. These will include:
- De-soiling and separation of haulms, stones and clods
- Grading for size
- Logistics and storage (bunkers, boxes)
- Integration of packaging machines.
Although growers of seed potatoes generally know what they want, the solution that Tolsma-Grisnich provides is often just that bit different and more logical. According to Arends, this is because Tolsma-Grisnich advisors have the advantage of ample experience, coupled with the practice-oriented expertise that they have acquired from working with many other seed-growing businesses: ‘As a result, they know what works and what doesn’t. And they can combine all the tricks in the book because they have seen them all along the way’.
Seed potato growers are expressing preferences
From the many talks that Tolsma-Grisnich advisors have had with seed potato growers in the past year, the following requirements have become evident.
1. Flexibility stimulates ease of working
- The possibility to grade and inspect in separate operations. Bunkers can then be filled before the inspection team sets to work
- The capacity to inspect another batch already graded for size during the grading process and prior to bagging without the need to empty all bunkers
- The option for flexible adjustment of the intensity and aggressiveness of pintle belts or clod separators so that cleaner batches do not incur unnecessary damage.
2. Increased capacity saves on labour
- Labour is expensive and time is limited, which is why rapid grading and inspection is a priority
- Acreages are growing, so businesses require more processing capacity.
3. Accuracy yields efficiency
- Accurate grading means more tubers of the required size, enhancing the financial returns on the cultivation
- Quicker grading of long tubers at high capacity fits in with the demand for more grading capacity.
4. Electronic clod separation and inspection reduces labour
- The fully automatic removal of clods from the product prior to grading increases capacity and reduces labour.
- Electronic inspections and pre-inspections reduce the need for scarce inspection staff.