Northumberland potato farmer grows with third farm

Renowned cereal and potato growers Messrs Robson from Wooler have taken on additional farm land after a positive start to 2013

Mark Robson of Messrs Robson with John Morton
Mark Robson of Messrs Robson with John Morton

A cereal and potato farmer has taken on additional farm land and is looking to the future after a positive start to 2013.

Messrs Robsons, set up 40 years ago by Mark and Judy Robson, farm a 330-acre site at Kelso as well as a 700-acre site, 12 miles away at Wooler, Northumberland.

As renowned growers of cereal and potatoes, the farm’s customers include Billingham-based McCoys Crisps, as well as major supermarkets, such as the Co-op, Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

With the founders’ backing, the firm is now in the hands of their son, also named Mark, who saw an opportunity to purchase additional land that would enable the business to further expand its operations.

Working with RBS in Kelso, Mr Robson secured major funding from the bank, backed by the Government’s Funding for Lending scheme. This has enabled the business to buy land at Weetwood Hill,which almost borders the existing Wooler site.

The purchase provides arable land that allows expansion of their business.

Robson, 46, said: “In the 2012 season, we had to spend more on crop growing, and as a result of a lack of sunshine, and too much rain, our crop yield was the lowest I’ve known in 25 years.

“In a normal year, yields would be running at 16 to 17 tonnes per acre plus, and last year we achieved under 10 tonnes per acre, mainly due to the weather conditions  – but as farmers, you can’t change that.”

Robson added that although the year started with cold climatic conditions, the weather has since picked up.

He said: “This year started off very, very cold, and since early May, temperatures have increased. We’ve had good temperatures in June – so there’s a lot more hope for a decent crop yield this year.

“We planted all our potatoes in March and April, about 450 acres plus – the equivalent of about 10,000 tonnes. It’s been much cheaper to plant potatoes this year because we didn’t suffer any delays due to wet weather.

“We directly compete with imported crops from Israel and Egypt and will start lifting our first batches in early August. The remainder will be lifted at the end of September and early October and these crops will go into storage, and will be used by the crisp factories in April or May 2014.”

Robson added the additional land purchase will help maintain local employment.

He said: “The additional acreage will certainly stabilise jobs for our full-time staff.

“The land purchase means we don’t need to rely on neighbouring landowners renting out acreage to us on an annual-basis. However, we still rent quite a lot of land in the local area, so rather than renting 40 acres elsewhere, we’re more in control of our actual growth platform.

“Given 50% of our potato crop is under contract, and as long as we get a reasonable yield, the returns will work well for us. The remaining 50% is on the free market.”

Robson said: “We turned to RBS for help as we’ve been with the bank for more than 20 years.

“We dealt with John Morton who was extremely helpful and flexible. He didn’t require us to be formal and was always available to discuss any concerns.

“It was great to have someone on our side who understands the long-term view. Our crop lead-in times can be two and a half to three years, so monthly budgeting is somewhat meaningless.

“Due to the inclement weather conditions of  2012, it’s been a very difficult 12 months, resulting in a negative impact on our turnover, profits, costs and on occasions, sanity. Hopefully, we’ll have less extreme weather conditions this season.

“Nothing is straightforward in farming but we’re very grateful to RBS for helping with the provision to expand our business and accelerate growth.

“At this stage, it’s hard to predict the impact of the additional land on our overall turnover but it could result in a 10 -15% increase.”

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