MAJORCA produces between 35'000 and 40'000 tons of potatoes a year, and between 20'000 and 25'000 tons of the crop are exported, chiefly to England. The Esplet/SAT Cooperative exports 12'000 tons a year, and last month, I accompanied one of the lorries on its long haul from Sa Pobla to England. The lorry, with a 16 metre trailer, took on its load of 22 tons of Maris Peer potatoes in Sa Pobla on the night of April 21, ready for departure at 9am on Saturday, April 22, with driver Carlos Casellas, aged 60, behind the wheel. It was due to cover the nearly 1'800 kilometres to its destination, Solanum, a firm near Spalding, 250 kilometres north of London, by the following Monday morning. We drove from Sa Pobla to Palma, where the lorry was driven on board a ferry to Barcelona.
The first stop after Barcelona was at La Jonquera, two and a half hours later. It was here that I learned my first lesson of life on the road.
I wasn't hungry but Carlos, the driver, told me “eat now while you can, because you don't know when you will be able to next.” This is because long haul trips always hold lots of surprises, he explained, and it proved to be good advice.
Carlos, who lives in Mataró, has worked in transport all his life.
He ran his own tow car business for more than 20 years, but eventually sold up and became a lorry driver.
Four and a half hours after having crossed the Franco-Spanish frontier, we pulled up at an eatery half way between Nime and Lyon for the regulation one hour break, which Carlos used to take a nap. Lorry drivers cannot spend more than four and a half hours behind the wheel at a stretch without an hour's rest, and they can drive for nine hours a day at the most. A tachograph in the cabin checks on this. Speed is also limited to 90kph.
The second and last stop of the day was at a road hostal 60 kilometres from Dijon, famous for its mustard. Carlos opted to sleep in the lorry.
We set off again at 8am the following morning, without breakfast, because the owner of the hotel where I spent the night let us down.
We stopped one hour later at a self-service establishment for breakfast.
Most of the journey through France was by motorways, tolls coming to 400 euros to cross the entire country.
We eventually reached Calais at night fall, Carlos hesitating over whether to stay in France or cross the Channel via the tunnel. He eventually decided on the latter. British customs officers inspected the lorry, using sophisticated sensors. Carlos and the other lorry drivers left their vehicles in the train's cargo section, and were then picked up by a bus which took them to the passenger coaches. The 53 kilometres was covered in half an hour, and just 15 minutes later, we were travelling along the English motorways.
Another hour behind the wheel and we reached the outskirts of London where we spent the night, reaching our final destination at 2pm on April 24, 53 hours after having left Barcelona. At Solanum's premises in Spalding we were met by Joan Company, the manager of Esplet/SAT, and Monica Moncusí of Med Produce, the firm which markets Sa Pobla potatoes in Britain. Solanum is one of the top British companies in the study and control of potatoes and it packages them for the Waitrose supermarket chain.
After the potatoes are unloaded, they are washed, selected, packed and weighed in 1.5 to 2 kilo bags, ready for distribution not only to Waitrose, but also to Tescos, the Coop and Sainsbury's. Watching the process was fascinating.
Esplet/SAT was set up in 1993 after the CAP cooperative closed down. Potato exports were in the doldrums and in 1992 had reached an all time low of 6'500 tons. A group of farmers decided to seek government aid to remedy the situation. At that time, Gabriel Cañellas was the Balearic leader, Pere J Morey the agriculture minister and Jaume Font the Mayor of Sa Pobla. But it was not until 1994 that Esplet/SAT really got underway, with an innovative concept: first the potatoes would be sold and then produced. This was accompanied by a change in the varieties of potatoes grown. The traditional varieties were dropped in favour of the Maris Peer.
Over the years, the company has grown and modernised.
Where once the potatoes were harvested by hand, collection is now fully mechanised; there are experimental fields, new methods are tried and tested and new systems of irrigation have been introduced. The latest innovation is the purchase, by the agriculture ministry, of 100 robots which oversee the potato fields. They have an irrigation control system to counteract the effects of frost or drought, and a fertiliser regulator which acts in accordance with the needs of each farm, with absolute respect for the environment. Esplet started to specialise in the British market and is now one of the leading potato exporters in Spain, providing 23 per cent of the potatoes sent to England and 27 per cent of exports to Scandinavia. The company is also committed to protecting the environment and is the first Spanish company to control the entire process from planting the seed to consumption. This control arose because of the mad cow crisis, and Tescos made it a condition for selling the potatoes in its outlets. Esplet's cycle of work starts in September, when production is sold.
The potatoes are sown between October and January and exported between March and May.
During these months, 600 lorries deliver the potatoes not only to England, but also Scandinavia, Germany, Belgium and Holland. The new seeds are usually brought from England. Through a complex control system, the growers know that potatoes sown on November 15 should be in England on April 15. The company has won various prizes from the Chamber of Commerce, Waitrose, and the Bulletin's sister paper Ultima Hora, which granted its “silver knife and fork.” The chief competitors of Sa Pobla are Egypt for price and Israel for quality. “The problem is that it is a very globalised market, with heavy investment in technology, and we have an expensive origin because we are an island. “This is complicated by the fact that Majorca has many small family farms, where the farmers are growing old and there are few young farmers,” Joan Company said. *Brisas magazine is distributed free of charge every Saturday with Ultima Hora.