YIF: New Stores at Elveden Estates

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The Young Innovators’ Forum (YIF) visited Elveden Estates on 10 October. Read on to see what one of the participants, Roxanne Sicat from the Department of Plant Sciences at Cambridge University, thought about the visit.
Potato storage is not normally something that stirs one’s spirits. But, standing on a steel platform overlooking three storey’s worth of potatoes, I couldn’t help but marvel at the feats of engineering, botany, and farming that must’ve come together to make this Storage possible.

The potatoes were stored in wooden boxes, each holding 1 tonne worth of spuds. Andrew Francis, the Farm Manager at Elveden Estate, walked onto the sea of potatoes. He balanced on the wooden walls of the boxes, and told us about how the facility worked.

At Elveden, potatoes are stored in one of four buildings just like the one we were in. Using a sophisticated cooling system, potatoes are kept at low temperatures (3.5 to 4 degrees if they’re going to the grocer; 8 degrees if they’re to be pre-processed) to suppress dormancy breaking. By using a negative pressure system, Elveden is able to forgo using chloropropham, or CIPC. CIPC is a chemical that suppresses shoot growth in potatoes. In Andrew’s words, the storage facility allows Elveden to ensure “continuity of product for 52 weeks a year”.

 

We then made our way to the potato grading site. Here, potatoes are graded (sorted by size) using a series of conveyor belts and grids. During the day, the machines are manned by seasonal workers. They also remove any spuds with “cosmetic defects”.

Next stop was the onion storage facility. Whereas the potato storage facility was kept cool, the onion storage site was sweltering. Hot, dry air (28 degrees Celsius) is pumped over

a capacity of 22’000 tonnes of onions day and night. By desiccating the outside layers of onions, the bulb gets shrink-wrapped in an airtight layer of skin. In this way, the onions are protected from Fusarium and other pathogens.

Protecting onions from rotting is no small task. If more than 10% of any onions in a single 19-tonne box is found diseased, then laws dictate the entire box of onions must be destroyed. As well as shrink-wrapping onions in their own skin, farm workers need to prevent weeds from being included in the onion storage box. Weeds, such as Fat Hen (Chenopodium album) introduce moisture. In turn, the moisture promotes rot.

Since weed growth coincides with the maturation of onions on the field, many farmers try to control weed growth with herbicides. With increasing pressure from consumers and the EU to reduce herbicide application, farmers and scientists need to work together to find alternative ways to secure the harvest.

As a plant sciences student, I was unaware of all the work that goes into making sure the harvest reaches store shelves. There is a whole body of hidden knowledge that goes into producing cheap, high-quality food – and I am very glad the Young Innovator’s Forum exposed me to it.

Roxanne is a Part II student at the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge.

Agri-Tech East’s Young Innovators’ Forum, kindly sponsored by The Morley Agricultural Foundation, is designed to help farmers and scientists understand more about each other’s worlds through a series of free to attend events. Cambridgeshire events are coordinated through CambPlants and Cambridgeshire Young Farmers.

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