The acquisition of the island’s biggest supplier is one of the sector’s most significant events in years

The Jersey Royal season is getting into full swing against the backdrop of a huge power shift on the island.

Jersey potato farm L'Etacq

The popular and much-anticipated crop has already begun appearing in a number of stores across the UK, with availability of product steadily increasing into the main season in May.

The major talking point in the sector, however, has been the confirmation on 21 March that Albert Bartlett had completed its acquisition of The Jersey Royal Company (JRC) from Produce Investments, following approval from The Jersey Competition Regulatory Authority (JCRA). It sees the Airdrie-based potato giant take full control over the mainstream commercial Jersey Royal crop on the island, some 60 per cent of which was previously exported by JRC.

According to Albert Bartlett, the consolidation of the island’s leading producers is seen by both businesses as key to delivering a sustainable future for the famous crop, while continuing to deliver a great product for consumers.

Family-owned Albert Bartlett has packed and marketed Jersey potatoes for multiple generations and has had a dedicated packing and growing infrastructure on the island since 2008. The Jersey Royal Company, meanwhile, was formed into its current model over 20 years ago and was purchased by Produce Investments in 2014.

Work will now begin on integrating the team at JRC and its entire operations into the Albert Bartlett Group, the company confirmed, which it said would “make for an exciting 2024 season and create new opportunities for everyone in the supply chain going forward.”

Protection for growers

Regulators needed to be assured that handing Albert Bartlett such a level of control over the island’s crop would not prevent Jersey’s growers from receiving a fair price for their crop.  To address that, the JCRA approved the transaction with two legally binding conditions.

Firstly, Albert Bartlett had to commit in writing to providing independent potato growers with a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory market price for their product. And secondly, in the event any grower considers Albert Bartlett has not honoured that first condition, those growers may raise their concerns with the Jersey Farmers Union as their representative on the Jersey Royal Brand Management Group, or directly to the Minister for the Environment or the Minister for Sustainable Economic Development. Albert Bartlett must also engage in any subsequent discussions transparently, constructively and in good faith.

JCRA agreed that the deal would likely create efficiencies and enable the merged entity to better compete in the UK tendering process, support the status and longevity of the Jersey Royal Brand, and protect the island’s agricultural industry. That view has been backed by the island’s independent growers and the government’s Rural Economy Team.

‘Great consumer proposition’

Speaking on completion of the deal, Albert Bartlett’s chief executive Alex Bartlett said: “We have a long history with the island in the production and marketing of Jersey Royal potatoes and in supporting the future of Jersey agriculture. Our purchase of JRC enhances that level of commitment and will allow us to build a compelling and sustainable future for our combined teams, growers and retail partners by delivering a great consumer proposition.

“There will be lots of hard work ahead, but it is an exciting time for the famous Jersey Royal potato.”

Produce Investments’ group chief financial officer, Rachel Cook-Coulson, added: “We are really proud of our Jersey business and our team who have done a great job for our customers and in continuing the rich history of the Jersey Royal potato. However, we have a responsibility to look forward and ensure that great tradition continues.

“With current pressures in the supply chain and changing market dynamics we believe a consolidated approach to producing and marketing this unique product is needed. Following detailed discussions we believe Albert Bartlett are best placed to take Jersey forward.”

Gearing up for the season

Everyone will be watching how the integration of the two businesses unfolds over the coming weeks, but in the meantime it’s full steam ahead for the new season.

Speaking to FPJ in February, JRC business unit director Mike Renouard said that while there has been quite a lot of rainfall, planting at that point was still ahead of a year ago. “It’s still early days so it all depends on the weather in the next three months, whether we get any frost or a bit of dry weather to get more cropping,” he said at the time. “The weather conditions tend to be more mild these days, so hopefully things will be on our side.”

JRC has invested in new cooling equipment, which helps reduce manual handling in the process of removing sprouts from the seeds, and is also introducing more mechanical planting using smaller, gentle machines.

Albert Bartlett’s marketing director John Hicks said the focus for the company’s teams in Jersey has been on planting and ensuring early emergence, but he added that changing weather patterns are continuing to make life complicated in short seasons such as those for Jersey Royals. “Growers feel generally on plan with planting so far this year and the key is to keep the sequential model progressing to dovetail with retail plans,” he added. “We will see some limited early-season crops marketed in April, building to the core volume and activity from early May.”

Marketing magic

A recent consumer survey by Albert Bartlett indicated that over 84 per cent of UK shoppers buy Jersey Royal potatoes, and the supplier intends to capitalise on that with further consumer engagement over the season.

The generic industry campaign will be headlined by so-called ‘Potato Queen’ Poppy O’Toole, who will take the Jersey Royal onto TikTok with on-trend recipe content. Across wider social media, Jersey Royal content will feature multiple influencer partnerships, including 5oclockapron, spicymoustache and veganbrownting, backed up with a PR campaign to engage wider media coverage and ensure broad in-season exposure for the potato.

Albert Bartlett’s plans include pushing Jersey Royals on its own channels and press, where it will highlight the famous island landscapes and high-quality food images. Long-time ambassador Michel Roux Jr will again lead the campaign, while growers will feature throughout the group’s messaging.

Supermarkets step up

Supermarkets traditionally clamour to be the first to get new-season Jersey Royals onto shelves, proclaiming their success with stories in the press.

M&S Food has been the most high profile so far this year, kicking off its Jersey Royal season in late March with the launch of new plastic-reducing paper packaging that is described as a first.

The new potato begun appearing on shelves in 75 M&S Foodhalls across the UK to signal the start of the season. The retailer expects to sell one million packs this season, up 15 per cent on last year, in recognition of the product’s growing popularity.

The early-season crops are grown in glasshouses on the island, allowing them to be harvested earlier. M&S said the earliest crops typically go to fine-dining restaurants, but it has managed to secure product for its customers.

This year’s crop is being packaged in 100 per cent recyclable paper, which M&S estimated will remove one million pieces of plastic from this product alone during the first year.

The transition into plastic-free packaging has taken many seasons to develop, according to the retailer, and is a market first for M&S.