Sustainable potatoes are a good investment

Almost 30 years of experience of Farm Frites Poland in sustainable potato cultivation and processing is one of the best examples of a business model based on the sustainable agricultural production. Our questions are answered by Jarosław Wańkowicz, Potato Procurement Director at Farm Frites Poland S.A.

You are an example of a company that is both a processor and a producer of agricultural raw material. Where did this decision come from and what are the benefits of such a model of operation?
There are two companies under the name Farm Frites Poland: Farm Frites Poland Dwa Sp. z o. o., that is, a 2,500 ha farm in Bobrowniki, which has been operating since 1993, and Farm Frites Poland SA, a factory in Lębork existing since 1994. The farm in Bobrowniki was established to grow special varieties of potatoes, with the right length and level of starch, which would be suitable for the production of French fries. Such potatoes had not been cultivated in Poland before, because Polish farmers were focused on growing round potatoes intended for direct consumption or for the production of starch. Having our own farm gave us confidence that we would have the right potatoes for French fries. While in the 1990s potatoes from our own farm covered the total demand of the factory, along with its development and increasing production capacity, the number of growers increased too and now Farm Frites Poland Dwa supplies about 10 percent of the potatoes needed by the factory.

Having your own farm, apart from the guarantee of potato deliveries, also has other advantages. Our own specialized storage facilities allow long-term storage of potatoes. We also grow test potato varieties, which we can later recommend to other suppliers. Own farm is also an opportunity to gain invaluable knowledge and experience in potato cultivation, and then transfer it to other potato producers. It is worth noting that the farm in Bobrowniki is one of six in Europe and the first in Poland, that belong to the McDonald’s Flagship Farmers project. Which means it became the model French fries potato farm for this international restaurant chain.

By having our own farm, we can also be closer to farmers and better understand the challenges they face – after all, we experience the same ones.

You are part of an international company that operates in many markets. What is the specificity of Polish agriculture compared to other European markets?
Polish agriculture faces very similar challenges as agriculture in Western Europe. The main difference is that in Western Europe there is more competition due to the large number of processing companies. In Poland, competition takes place mainly at the crop level. The lack of competitive companies that could use the same potato varieties means that potato cultivation in Poland is largely based on cultivation contracts and there is a lack of turnover on the so-called free market, which would largely allow producers to mitigate extreme weather conditions.

Another big challenge of Polish agriculture in potato cultivation is access to knowledge about the most modern systems of growing, protecting, handling  or harvesting and storing potatoes. This situation means that this task is taken over by processing companies, as our company does, or by professional distributors of means of production.

What varieties of potatoes are required for the production of your products and how do they differ from other potatoes?
In Poland, the most commonly grown potatoes are those for general purpose, which retain a compact structure during thermal processing, i.e. they do not overcook. These are table potatoes usually added to soups, salads, casseroles and served as puree or just cooked in water.

At Farm Frites Poland we grow and buy industrial, high-starch potatoes. Their flesh is powdery and mealy, and this would disintegrate when cooked in a traditional way. The high starch content ensures the right consistency of our products. We rely on several varieties approved for production, e.g. Innovator, Ludmilla, Ivory Russet, Fontane, Edison. Each introduction of a new variety is preceded by many years of research, during which we observe how the selected variety performs both in the field and during processing into French fries. Thanks to these tests, we gain knowledge e.g. what spacing to plant tubers at, how to fertilize, how to irrigate, what the finished product looks like, what color and structure it has after frying. Only after a comprehensive assessment is carried out, the variety is approved for production.

It might seem that ‘these are just potatoes’, but in order for our factory to produce a good fries, such potatoes must have the right size, color and dry matter content.

But what the very important fact is that all the potatoes processed in our factory come from sustainable farms. This means that in their production, in addition to the economic aspect, the environmental and social aspects were also taken into account.

In addition to your own farm, you work with many individual farmers – please tell us more about your suppliers. Do they have to meet any specific standards, especially in terms of sustainability?
Our strategy of cooperation with farmers aims to shorten the supply chain, as in most cases the producer is also the supplier. This has its positive sides, because, for example, we have more control over the raw material, we know where it comes from, how it is produced and where it is stored. We reduce CO2 emissions resulting from transport, because a large part of farmers are local suppliers, and we also know that by eliminating intermediaries, the farmer gets more money.

All potatoes that come to the factory in Lębork are produced in Poland, mainly in the Pomeranian and West Pomeranian Voivodeships, as well as in Greater Poland, Żuławy and Kujawy. We cooperate with producers on the basis of seasonal contracts. Many farmers have been supplying us with potatoes for more than ten years. Some of them own of large farms and have modern equipment, knowledge and experience and grow not only potatoes. We also cooperate with smaller producers. All of them are offered help in purchasing seed potatoes and provided with professional agronomic advice and assistance throughout the season. We care about high-quality raw material, so our producers are obliged to be certified in the scope of the GlobalG.A.P. standard, which includes compliance with the principles of good agricultural practice and the production of safe food. However, we go a step further and encourage the producers cooperating with us to obtain the FSA (Farm Sustainability Assessment) certificate at the gold level, which confirms the highest level of farm sustainability. All new producers are offered support in preparing for the certification process, which may seem difficult, but in fact usually requires minor modifications to the farm.

What challenges are potato producers currently facing?
The last two years have been marked by the pandemic and there is nothing to hide – it affected our business as well as the businesses of our suppliers. However, this year brought even more unexpected and tragic events. I suppose that none of the companies had in their analysis the risk related to the outbreak of war in Ukraine. Suddenly, we found ourselves in a new reality in which the only thing that seems to be certain are prices – last year the prices of crude oil increased, fertilizers became more expensive, and this is not the end. The blockade of the Russian market and the situation in Ukraine affect equally producers and processors of food.

Another major challenge that potato producers have to face are the European Green Deal guidelines. Potatoes are a plant that compared to cereals or rapeseed require more intensive protection against diseases and fertilization with some macro elements, and the breeding of new, less demanding varieties is long-lasting and more complicated process than in the case of cereals or rapeseed.

How do you think the implementation of the principles of the European Green Deal will affect the potato producers?
In view of the climate challenges we are currently facing, it is important that a comprehensive vision is created to protect the environment, air, soil and water, preserve biodiversity, shorten supply chains and ensure traceability of products from field to fork.

As agricultural producers, we thoroughly analyze the provisions of the Draft Strategic Plan for the Common Agricultural Policy, the purpose of which is to support the sustainable development of Polish villages and Polish farms. Of course, the rules for granting direct payments will change, but they will still be available, and for those who decide to implement eco-schemes, the amounts paid will be correspondingly higher.

As for the potato suppliers we work with, many of them are already implementing a number of measures to improve soil structure and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Crop rotation, sowing catch crops and honey plants, testing soil fertility on the basis of which a fertilization plans are developed are just some of the activities carried out by our suppliers each year. Although they are included in the Strategic Plan for the Common Agricultural Policy for 2023-2027, they are already being implemented, because it is simply good agricultural practice. The second pillar of the plan also provides for the allocation of targeted subsidies for investments contributing to the improvement of the natural environment and climate. Farmers or producer groups will be able to receive funding for the use of alternative energy sources, for the purchase of modern equipment used in precision agriculture. They will also be able to obtain support in the construction of agricultural infrastructure, e.g. warehouses, drying plants and for the digitization of production and supply chains.

I think that in the long run Polish farmers will become more competitive, they will produce in a more modern and cheaper way, and at the same time they will minimize the impact on the environment through economical use of resources and better waste management.

Who are your customers? Where can we buy French fries produced by Farm Frites Poland?
Farm Frites Poland produces for brands such as Farm Frites and Aviko, which are also our shareholders, and for McDonald’s. French fries and pancakes produced for Farm Frites and Aviko go to retail and catering customers mainly from Central and Eastern Europe.

In turn, the fries for McDonald’s, which we have been producing continuously since 1995, go to almost 1,000 restaurants of this chain in 11 European countries.

You are a member of the SAI platform that has created the sustainable agriculture standard. Please tell us more about SAI principles and the role of this platform in introducing a sustainable farming model and your company’s participation in the work of SAI.
Since 2002, SAI Platform has been promoting sustainability in agriculture. It creates tools and procedures to be able to measure and monitor the degree of sustainability of production. SAI is the originator and owner of the international FSA (Farm  Sustainability  Assessment) certification. This certificate is awarded on the basis of a third-party audit to agricultural producers who meet all standards for sustainability in the supply chain. It is about both the agricultural and economic aspects of the business and being a responsible employer who cares about its employees and the environment. We actively use training courses organized by SAI Platform and we are a member of discussion groups.

In 2014, together with several other companies from the food production chain, we founded the Polish Association of Sustainable Agriculture “ASAP”. The recognition of this association is growing year by year as is the role of sustainable agriculture in Poland. The ASAP Association together with its partners carries out many valuable projects. Last year the report “Sustainable food in Poland” was prepared, based on public opinion polls and cooperation with experts. The report is an analysis of Poles’ shopping preferences and their approach to sustainable production. It turns out that we, the Poles, pay attention to the origin and method of production of purchased goods, and we are also able to pay more for food, the production of which does not adversely affect our planet.

As a farm we invest in modern machines with GPS devices, sprayers with section control, we create maps of plantation diversity with the help of drones and we use variable dosage of fertilizers and plant protection products, accordingly. We are constantly looking for new solutions to increase the level of our sustainability. We have recently invested in a new ventilation system in one of our potato stores, reducing annual energy consumption by more than 30%.

Generally speaking, we have implemented a lot of principles regarding integrated production and good agricultural practice and we work based on them on a daily basis.

Your company operates locally – are you involved in activities related to supporting the local communities around the production plant and the farm?
Since the beginning of our activity, we have been actively cooperating with communities living near our farm and factory, supporting them in meeting their needs. As a food producer, every year we donate tons of potatoes, chips or pancakes to local schools, foundations, social welfare centers and orphanages. It would take a long time to mention all activities, but I’d like to mention the preventive ultrasound examinations of children in the Ronald McDonald Foundation ambulance, which we organize regularly every other year, financial support of our local football clubs, such as Polonez Bobrowniki, Team Lębork, Volunteer Fire Brigades in the purchase of equipment, supporting schools and local organizations in the preparation of cultural and educational events. We approach the needs of local communities with great openness and our support is an expression of our responsibility, but also gratitude for years of good cooperation.

Thank you for the interview!