Update on this year’s Jersey Royal season, by William Church, sales and marketing director of Jersey Royal Company Ltd
At the time of writing the process of grading and ‘standing’ seed is well-underway and the first area of indoor Jersey Royals to supply the early wholesale market trade for the 2021 season has already been planted, so the mood is generally positive and optimistic for the year ahead.
This however doesn’t reflect on a lot of what else is going on in the world and the numerous challenges that we faced during the season just gone.
The big topic on everyone’s mind at the moment is of course the current Covid-19 pandemic. This has certainly impacted many walks of life and in many different ways, so I thought it only fair to reflect upon the effect that this had on the potato industry in 2020 and continues to have going forward.
When Covid really came to the fore back in March and lockdown across many countries came a reality, Jersey farmers were in a slightly more fortunate position than many mainland agricultural businesses who also rely on seasonal workers in so far as we already had a large number of people in the Island planting the export crop. Whilst more would have travelled over to help during the busiest weeks of harvest and packing there was time to modify working practices and to plan our way through.
Aside from the practicalities of planting, growing and harvesting a crop of Jersey Royal new potatoes the pandemic has had noticeable impacts in a number of other ways, not least the change in shopping habits and the access to different markets.
So how did this specifically affect the sales of Jersey Royals?
Jersey Royals are very often the subject of what is termed an ‘impulse purchase’ which is why a prominent position in stores at the end of aisles is so important. However, with fewer trips to supermarkets by shoppers, there were less opportunities for a ‘repeat purchase’ which resulted in a loss of sales, but conversely many shoppers looked to buy larger packs resulting in more Royals being purchased on each visit.
Traditional shoppers (the older members of society) stayed at home and so weren’t buying Royals.
Online channels through retailers such as Ocado did very well, as did the main supermarkets who offer this service.
Sales of loose, unwashed potatoes practically stopped as it not only takes longer to select the potatoes, but there was a fear factor about contamination through touch.
The wholesale market trade that supplies food service outlets who supply hotels and restaurants died almost overnight at the beginning, but then saw a remarkable and positive turnaround which is attributed to independent greengrocers experiencing an upturn in business as shoppers opted to use them and not to go into the larger supermarkets.
The local industry works with a London PR agency that specialises in food and drink to promote Jersey Royal new potatoes to consumers through various channels. The campaign was reviewed to make sure that consumers were targeted in the best ways, and there was certainly a lot of interest in the daytime television slots and recipe suggestions.
Covid is continuing to impact workers and businesses with returning members of staff coming back to the Island after a summer break having to self-isolate. Farmers can manage this effectively and efficiently by managing ‘bubbles’ of people in different accommodation blocks, but there is still an element of concern, aside from the cost of hosting workers who can’t work.
Ultimately the success of any season relies principally on the weather throughout the whole year. Jersey experienced a very wet 2019-20 winter which left many fields with a sodden seed bed. Planting was hugely disrupted and delayed, and the potatoes that were planted didn’t grow so well which affects the output.
May saw five weeks of drought that brought another set of challenges and further impacted on yields, before it finally rained heavily in early June to boost late season production when a number of planned promotions had already been put on hold! – So all in all it was a very difficult season to manage, and one that the farmers would rather forget.
To end on a more upbeat note, the cover crops that are planted following the potato season flourished with the June rain, to the extent that there were reports of plagues of white butterflies in the Island! Increased biodiversity that provides functioning ecosystems is important and a real success story that local farmers are rightfully very proud of. It helps with soil management, fresh water management, nutrient storage and recycling, brightens the countryside with vibrant colours and should be celebrated and enjoyed by all Islanders.