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Crunch Time

PUBLISHED: 20:23 02 April 2015 | UPDATED: 20:23 02 April 2015

EXG MAY 15 CO-OP

EXG MAY 15 CO-OP

Anglia Picture Agency

It takes a lot of work to get from a seed potato to a bag of crisps, and in Wormingford, absolutely everything takes place on one family farm. Jackie Brown explains more

So how do you transform a humble seed potato into an award-winning bag of crisps? It seems here in Essex the best people to ask are Robert and Laura Strathern of Fairfields Farm.

The husband and wife team were recently crowned Essex winners of the East of England Co-op’s Producer of the Year Awards and in the most recent Great Taste Awards scooped gold stars for their naturally flavoured crisps: Farmhouse Cheese & Chive, Sea Salt & Aspall Cyder Vinegar and Sweet Chilli.

Growing potatoes must surely be in their blood as both Robert and Laura are third generation farmers who today manage more than 550 acres of potatoes across the Colne Valley, on the Essex/Suffolk border.

‘We grow around 12 different varieties of potato on the farm,’ says Robert. ‘They include Maris Peer, Estima, Desiree, King Edwards and Marfona for fresh potato sales. The crisping varieties have different cooking qualities and include Lady Roseeta and Lady Claire. The soil type in the Colne Valley is pretty mixed, but carefully managed planting and irrigation, when required, means that we manage to produce a bright, good looking potato.’

In 2006, Robert and Laura decided to take their rural business one step further and set about diversifying into crisp production — launching Fairfields Farm Crisps. The major driver was to add value — they felt if they could grow first class potatoes they could also make premium crisps.

Things got off to a great start and sales grew so fast that in 2011 they invested in a purpose-built crisp production factory on the farm which adjoins the washing and packhouse facility.

‘There’s really no such thing as a typical day on the farm!’ says Robert. ‘Each day is very much dictated to by the Great British weather. At this time of year we’re busy planting and, weather permitting, we harvest from July to September. Whether it’s sunshine over head or raining like cats and dogs, it’s our job to ensure that we always have potatoes in the cold stores ready to pack into fresh potatoes or cook into crisps.

‘Our cold storage facilities hold up to 5,000 tonnes of potatoes and these potatoes need constant attention to ensure the quality in appearance and fry quality are maintained throughout the entire season.

‘We employ around 30 people on the farm and in the factory and office — it’s a really multi-skilled workforce. Our packhouse is always working, grading different varieties of potato for fresh potato use or washing and sizing the potatoes ready for hand cooking.’

Potatoes are washed and graded before entering the crisp manufacturing side of the operation. They are then weighed to a set batch size, before being sliced and hand-cooked in sunflower oil. The cooked crisps are then inspected thoroughly before entering the flavouring drum. Finally, the flavoured crisps are weighed and bagged off into 40g or 150g bags before being packed into cardboard cases ready for sale.

‘Making crisps is a pretty simple process,’ adds Laura. ‘But it takes a whole lot of work to get from a seed potato to a bag of crisps. It’s a bonus that absolutely everything takes place on the family farm, from digging up and hand selecting the quality of the potatoes used, to washing, slicing, cooking and bagging at the on-site factory.

‘As a result, every packet of crisps can be traced back to the potatoes used and the exact field they were grown in — we’re really proud of that.’

In fact, Fairfields Farm is believed to be one of the only places in the country to grow, grade, store, wash, pack, hand-cook and distribute potatoes all from one farm.

The completely natural home-cooked crisps offer a real taste of East Anglia as the produce used to flavour the crisps is all sourced from neighbouring independent businesses including Wicks Manor bacon and last Christmas the farm joined forces with Kelly Bronze Turkeys of Chelmsford to develop turkey flavour crisps.

The traditional potato crisps have proved so successful that the Stratherns have also branched out into vegetable crisp production, including parsnip crisps flavoured with Essex honey and black pepper.

Robert adds: ‘We’ve learnt a lot over the years and today we pride ourselves on being the potato product experts!’

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