Thursday, December 7, 2023

Spud family name’s on the packet

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James Bowan grows potatoes for a nationwide paddock-to-packet potato chip brand. Nearly a decade after the business started he’s still happiest in the paddock. Tim Fulton reports.
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The Bowan family farms more than 600ha at Orari in South Canterbury. Down the road at industrial Washdyke, in the slipstream of Timaru, the family also runs the Heartland chips processing plant.

Fallgate Farm includes 250-odd hectares of spuds, 320ha of combinable cereals,150ha of grass seed and a few other bits and pieces, especially seeds.

It adds up to a lot of business from farm to shop shelf but James isn’t bothered with the trappings of corporate hierarchy.

He admits, reluctantly, to being in charge of arable production.

“I suppose I’m … I don’t know how you’d word it but at the top of the ladder maybe, near enough to the top and take care of the day-to-day running of the farm. Overseeing everything that goes with that but still fortunate enough to have a good sound fella to bounce ideas off. It’s good to have him round.”

Supplying the market on-time and to specification is a never-ending challenge.

“You always have a pride in what you’re doing. You know you always like to supply a good product, whether it’s yourself as the end user or somebody else because it’s your name on that product.”

For all that pressure, James reckons it would be hard to find any better job than his. He takes pride in growing the crops, interacting with staff and meeting interesting arable people from all walks of life.

“Yeah, I do love farming. If I didn’t love it I wouldn’t be here. It’s quite a simple choice really. I’d say I’m very fortunate to be where I am today. Yeah, very lucky and still to have the support of parents.”

He’s pretty happy with the size of the operation but expects there will be improvements to infrastructure and irrigation.

“We’re going to change and go more … that sounds like there’s something bloody wrong doesn’t it … but, but we’ll go more down that track with VRI to get better utilisation out of the water.”

He particularly wants to get more production from the lighter ground now they have removed fences.

“It’ll involve another irrigator at some stage I suppose but there’s some capital costs on that.”

After a moment’s hesitation, James reassures himself he’ll follow through on that job. 

“No, bugger it, there’ll be more than just an irrigator and VRI. I’ll be around for a while hopefully. I’ve young fella who’s pretty keen too so I better hang round and give him a chance.”

By young fella, he means family, his wife Jess, Archie, 10, Maisie, 8, and Greta, 5. Life’s about having three kids at school and making the most of a farming life.

“I’ve got a lovely wife and three great wee kids. Well they’re not wee any more. They’re growing up. Archie’s 10 and he’s just keen as mustard out here. Any chance he gets he’s in the yard seeing what the men are doing.”

Just quietly, the idea of having one of the family carry on the family business does pop into James’ imagination now and then.

“I’m not gonna push Archie into it and if he wants to do it, that’s great. But I always like to think we can keep it in the family one way or another. And as long as regulations don’t get too carried away I think farming will carry on being pleasurable.”

Raymond never pushed any of his kids to follow in his footsteps, James says. 

“You know, the successful guy he’s been, I suppose you do feel there’s a little bit of pressure there but I think we’ll be fine.”

Charlotte had a career in teaching before managing the Washdyke plant and James says it’s reassuring to have that family link back to the farm.

“You know more of what’s happening on site in there and being a family-owned factory you get better, well, more honest feedback on what’s happening. You always know how those other sales are going.”

On that front, by the way, James can confirm it’s all too tempting for the owner of a chip factory to snaffle a bag for a snack. 

“I used to do it but I’m trying not to now. It’s a bit hard when you go to the factory for a look and you sort of feel you may want to take a packet home.”

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