Micro-managing machinery for top-quality potatoes

It is often said that to innovate a production chain, you have to start at the roots. With fries, this can be taken quite literally. That’s why both Jeremy Leadley and Jan Pieter Evenhuis are pioneering in the field of precision farming to efficiently deliver high-quality potatoes, now and in the future. And in the process, these potato farmers have become veritable data analysts…

Jan Pieter: Haha, yes, you could say that. On top of working the land, I also spend time retrieving and interpreting data collected by our machinery. It’s a personal interest of mine that also allows us to be at the forefront of innovation. We can influence development and get to serve as a source of information for other farmers.

Jeremy: To remain competitive and handle the crop in a better way than we used to, I think we really have to embrace new technology. The challenges we face in our business continue to change and innovation enables us to improve our operations and soil management.

“I think we really have to embrace new technology”

One of the things you do is yield mapping. What’s that?

Jan Pieter: My grandfather used to know every inch of his land, but things are different now. For example, we rent some of our fields, and because we rotate them, we don’t know the exact composition of the soil. With our machinery, however, we can map it quite precisely.

Jeremy: That’s true. Previously, everything had to be controlled mechanically and manually, but nowadays our machinery does so much more on its own. With yield mapping, we can see exactly which parts of the field perform better than others. We can then use this information to improve the soil and crop growth for subsequent seasons.

Jan Pieter: We can use this map for multiple things. We can optimally plant our potatoes, and we can see what parts of the soil are vulnerable and in what area our plants need extra care. Combined with the technology we got from BBleap, a company that makes systems for plant-level farming, we make sure we don’t overstress our crops and only spray what needs to be sprayed. It’s really enabled us to manage our fields better.

Jeremy: And we do more than yield mapping alone! For instance, here in Norfolk we also use a machine called a Dammer Diker to improve water infiltration in the field and reduce soil erosion, and we use planters with auto shutoff, so no seed potatoes are planted in places they don’t belong.

What challenges are you facing, pioneering in this field?

Jeremy: We’ve learnt to work more closely with manufacturers, as technology doesn’t always work perfectly the first time around. That’s why we always try to prove a product’s success on a small scale, before rolling it out to the rest of the operations.

Jan Pieter: We work with manufacturers as well, but we’ve also noticed that there are differences between manufacturers. One of our tools, for instance, is incredibly precise, but another one simply can’t reach the same level of precision, which diminishes the benefits of the first tool. You also have to work with different dashboards, so you have to invest time to extract and combine data to get the information you need.

And what about the benefits?

Jeremy: We can continue to grow great crops, so Lamb Weston can keep supplying high-quality, consistent products. If we don’t evolve and embrace innovation, we will get left behind, particularly with the increasingly inconsistent weather patterns. Besides, our operators really enjoy working with these new technologies!

Jan Pieter: I love the increased transparency it provides. Because everything is monitored, you know exactly where your product comes from and what happened with it. The product also becomes more sustainable, because it reduces crop and resource waste.

So, what does that mean for the future?

Jeremy: We’ll continue to work with new technologies, but there are a lot of things we can still improve. I’d really like to see increased automation and even more quality monitoring. I’d love to be able to track where the longest potatoes are growing and why! In the future, I hope we can decrease the impact on our soils even more, with driverless machinery, owered by alternative fuels.

Jan Pieter: The ultimate thing I’d like to do is to treat every plant individually. By looking at plants with cameras and using algorithms to compare the images, you can quickly identify what a specific plant needs. This leaves out the human opinion, and would really ensure quality products.

Even though innovation isn’t always fast-paced due to the seasonal nature of growing potatoes, both Jeremy and Jan Pieter plan to stick with new technologies. It helps them prepare for the future, they say, and ensures they can deliver a quality potato for many years to come!

Jeremy Leadley & Jan Pieter Evenhuis

Jeremy owns Tas Valley Contracting Ltd based in the English county of Norfolk. Jan Pieter works at Evenhuis V.O.F. based in Giethoorn, The Netherlands. What they have in common? They’re both potato farmers who use the newest technology to use of their land and resources as efficiently as possible!