Nearly everything you wanted to know about agriculture in Jersey
Agriculture in the Island is now dominated by two main activities: the production of the ‘Jersey Royal’ new potato and dairy farming with the ‘Jersey’ breed of dairy cow.
The total area of land under cultivation at around 36,500 vergées (2.25 vergées in an English acre), which represents 56% of the land area. The number of agricultural holdings has declined dramatically following the Second World War, at which time there were over 1,000 holdings, to less than 100 commercial farm operations today. The average size of the holdings has grown substantially, largely reflecting changes that have occurred throughout the UK over the same time period.
The pattern of land ownership in the Island is distinct in that the majority of land (75%) is not farmed by the owners but let to active farmers on a variety of lease agreements. This results in an active process of informal ‘land swaps’ whereby, for example, a primary leaseholder growing potatoes will ‘swop’ land for grazing seasons with livestock producers to ensure that a rotation is achieved.
The ‘Jersey Royal’ potato:
This is a seasonal crop, planted from December through to February and harvested from April through to June. It is grown on some 17,000 vergées with the bulk of the crop exported to the UK mainland and distributed through the multiple retailers. This export season relies on the critical six week period from the end of April to the beginning of June and as a ‘salad’ potato, consumption is influenced by weather conditions pertaining at the time. The value of this crop represents approximately 95% of the value of all arable exports.
There are two competing operations active in the export market, the Jersey Royal Potato Company and Albert Bartlett Ltd., with both having invested heavily in packing facilities within the last five years to add value to the crop. The former is a private company made up of five local families who amalgamated their farming businesses. The latter is a UK grower and supplier of potatoes and other root crops to the retail sector and in the island acts as a packing and exporting agent with contracts to many more grower suppliers.
The arrival of Albert Bartlett Ltd. in the Island in 2009 resulted in a number of growers who had left the industry returning to farming and resurgence of young farmers entering the industry. This, however, led to a rapid increase in land rentals which has put pressure on other, less profitable, sectors of the agricultural industry.
Dairy production & the ‘Jersey’ cow:
There are some 5,000 head of Jersey cattle in the Island of which 3,000 are ‘in milk’, calving all year round to ensure regular supply of milk to the dairy. All except one of the 26 dairy farmers supply their milk to the farmer owned co-operative Jersey Dairy.
Jersey Dairy processes approximately 13 million litres of milk per annum and supplies the Island’s need for 9 million litres of fresh milk. It also processes a range of products including butter, cream, yoghurt and ice cream. They are developing a premium quality line of products for the export market and in 2010 invested some £12 million in a new modern dairy alongside the RJA&HS showground in Trinity.
All of the Jersey cattle in the Island are pedigree registered in the Jersey Herd Book and there is a small population of ‘Aberdeen Angus cross’ animals reared for the local beef market.
The most important development in dairy farming in recent years was the change in Island legislation in 2008 to permit the introduction of genetics for the first time in some 200 years. Currently two out of every three calves registered are now sired by the top international Jersey bulls. Some herds are remaining ‘closed’ and only breeding to indigenous Jersey bulls.
The RJA&HS is monitoring the development of the breed to maintain breed characteristics and diversity in the Island herd. Early results from the first generation of animals bred by international Jersey bulls indicate that they are exhibiting an improvement in both milk production and conformation characteristics. Cattle breeders are looking forward to once again being recognised as the source of world class breeding stock.
In addition to the ‘big two’ there is a flourishing production base of local fruit and vegetables for consumption in the Island. The main outlets for this production are through the central market in St Helier, a range of farm shops and the two supermarket chains operating in the Island, run by Waitrose and the Channel Islands Co-operative Society.
There are many smaller scale primary producers of a range of products including wine, cider, eggs, lamb, pork, beef, mushrooms, watercress and herbs. There remains a significant, although much declined, industry exporting cut flowers, bedding plants and bulbs.
There is a committed group of organic producers who have found sales challenging in the current economic climate, whilst sales of local produce are increasing as provenance has become more of a factor in the buying decisions of consumers and restaurants.
The local agricultural industry has historically been dynamic and inventive and with considerable investment in recent years has been revitalised after a period of consolidation.
The challenges of farming on an island, however, include lack of scale and higher input costs resulting from the high cost of freight both on imports and exports. This necessitates the focus on premium quality branded products to return the added value required to mitigate the high cost of production.