Equipment/Technology

Nigel Haith: 2019 set to be another challenging year for potato growers

With political uncertainty, regulatory change and extreme weather, 2018 has been a challenging a year for British growers and farmers. One of the UK’s leading vegetable handling equipment suppliers is warning farmers to expect 2019 to be as equally unpredictable.

Nigel Haith, managing director of the Haith Group, believes the weather next year will continue to test potato growers, but his company is taking note of changing environmental conditions and ensuring design improvements for 2019 models make them best placed to cope.

“Looking back at this year and the weather has been an obvious and significant issue,” says Mr Haith. “If long, hot summers become the norm then as an industry, we will have to adapt. Lifting potatoes in damp soil has benefits. The soil protects the crop from bruising as it passes through the process. Scotland has enjoyed wetter weather, making the harvest easier. England though has not fared so well this year, and hard soils have caused problems. That’s why we’ve been encouraging people to run their machines a little slower than normal when the soil has been harder.”

“We’re pleased to be able to say that growers using our machines have benefited from our design considerations. We ensure there are minimal drops between our machines, which protects the crop and prevents potatoes bruising through falling. We remove any conveyor belt supports or rollers situated at the transfer point which allows the belt to flex, absorbing the shock when potatoes fall on it preventing bruising.

“We’ve also looked carefully at every touch point between our machines and the potatoes to ensure we protect the crop as much as possible. So, for example, we prevent scuffing by covering the steel sides on our conveyors with nylon skirting. It’s this attention to detail that makes all the difference.”

In 2010 Haith Group was recognised for its forward-thinking nature and received the Queen’s Award for Innovation. Today, the company is just as committed to improvement and innovation as it was eight years ago.

“With such unpredictable weather on the horizon, we’ve looked at how we can give operators of our machines as much control as possible,” says Mr Haith. So, all of the belts on our graders feature inverter speed control, and every setting can be saved using the HMI controls, so operators can ensure their machine is running at precisely the right speed.”

Haith’s innovative thinking is also evident in the Vertifill Pro, which was introduced in the spring of 2018. “Most bruising is caused when the first potatoes drop into the bottom of the box,” says Nigel. “This situation has been eliminated with the Haith pro-fill range, which uses a specially designed flighted belt which allows the tubers to roll gently rather than fall off the elevator. We’ve also made it possible for the height to be changed, to ensure the lowest gap between the bottom of the box and the filling elevator. We believe the HMI touchscreen control and high-efficiency drives make this the gentlest and user-friendly filler on the market.”

The company’s innovation strategy is also considering the environment and rising energy costs. Haith’s use of high efficiency motors are reducing running costs, and further enhancements are in the offing for 2019.

Minimising downtime is another area in which Haith has innovated and will continue to develop over the next twelve months. Haith’s in-built monitoring technology will be extended, meaning that operators are warned of potential issues, such as motors being overloaded or bearing wear before they affect the smooth running of the machine.

Mr Haith thinks that 2019 will be shaped by political decisions, not just in Europe but in the United States of America, where the country’s relationship with Mexico, is expected to see a significant impact on the manual labour market.

“North American farmers are going to have to invest in automation if the labour pool shrinks as people expect it to. For a long time, it has been Mexican workers who’ve helped with the harvest. If there are fewer people available to help during harvest, labour costs will rise, and we expect farmers to look at alternative ways of harvesting, and that means automation. We’ve been busy this year laying the foundations for increasing our presence in North America and Canada, where we expect to see a lot of interest in our machines.”

Closer to home and the possible removal of Diquat could impact on potato crops and have knock-on effects for machinery manufacturers. Farmers have relied on Diquat to kill the haulm and stop tubers from bulking when they’ve reached the desired market size.

“Diquat has given potato growers a degree of uniformity in their crop, which has given packers and farmers grading their crop a fairly straight-forward job. Banning Diquat could see potato crops become unpredictable and more challenging to lift and handle. I think, we will be working even harder to improve further the way we offer programmable settings and adjustable memory features on our machines to allow users to quickly change the configuration depending on what they find when they start lifting,” Mr Haith says.

While the weather and the UK’s departure from the European Union will have an impact on Haith’s customers and its export market, Haith is planning to continue its focus on the areas that have allowed it to be so successful so far.

“In terms of our future plans, we will continue to do what we’ve always done – listen to our customers and develop solutions that overcome their problems,” concludes Nigel.

For more information about the Haith Group and its products, please visit www.haith.co.uk

This article was first published in the February 2019 issue of Global Potato News magazine.