A protected variety for 130 years that is still primarily planted by hand, you’d be forgiven for thinking that not much changes in the Jersey Royal business. But last year’s takeover of the Jersey Royal Company (JRC) by industry giant Produce Investments (PI) has seen a flurry of investment into one of the island’s two major suppliers.

For PI, parent company of potato supplier Greenvale, the JRC acquisition added a classic British premium brand to its portfolio, and it has been quick to show its commitment to the future of one of the UK’s best-loved products.

Chief executive Angus Armstrong explains: “What we saw as an opportunity is that it’s a completely unique proposition in the category, we liked that it is a premium product, and it has a really great heart to the business. It also diversified our customer base, which benefits the wider group. The story of the Jersey Royal has real traction, it’s very tangible. When I go and talk to investors, they’ve all heard of Jersey Royals.”

One of the first changes after the change of ownership in May 2014 was the arrival of new managing director and Greenvale veteran David Rankin, who has built up a management team of 10, replacing the previous owner-management model.

The company has since invested around £2 million in packing and production systems, including a water chilling system, new packing line and packaging concepts, and a mechanical planter. “One of the biggest difficulties with Jersey Royals is that they are a protected variety – whereas other areas of the potato industry benefit from continued varietal development, we can’t change the variety, so we have to change how we grow it to give consumers what they want,” says Rankin, adding that one of the biggest changes has been the trend for a smaller-size potato.

Technical director Mike Renouard, who celebrates 25 years with JRC this year, says: “The biggest changes have been the sizing of the crop, but also packing developments. The other change has been that we are now doing nearly all pre-pack. But I think there is also a bit of a revival in loose, due to a consumer perception that they are more authentic.”

The company now has five packing lines, including four ‘pillow pack’ lines, and a new £800,000 line that produces standalone quad packs for Waitrose. It has also invested £150,000 into the hi-tech Perfotec packaging system, which measures respiration and adjusts packaging permeability accordingly, as well as £200,000 in a water chilling system.

The priority of pre-pack Jersey Royals goes some way to explaining the investment in packaging, but new technology also helps reduce food waste – something that is particularly relevant to the Jersey industry due to the growing trend for smaller potatoes.

JRC currently exports around 20,000 tonnes of potatoes a year grown on roughly 1,500 of the island’s iconic postage stamp-size fields and steep côtils. One of the biggest challenges is the risk of Potato Cyst Nematodes (PCN) due to the monocrop production on the island. “To tackle the problem of PCN we have established an on-site lab for soil testing, so we know exactly where the biggest problems are on the island and can treat those fields accordingly,” says Renouard. “We are also looking at various biocontrols including growing second crops like biofumigation mustard plants, prickly potatoes, garlic, and a certain type of fungus,” he adds.

Seasonal labour plays a huge role in the Jersey harvest, which is still 90 per cent planted and harvested by hand, with the workforce made up of Polish and Portuguese. Although the island is not covered by the National Living Wage, there are fears the Jersey industry will still be affected as workers may be tempted by higher wages in England. It’s already been more difficult to source labour for this season, says Rankin, although being part of PI also brings access to the group’s wider seasonal labour recruitment base.

With a turnover of between £23-25m, Rankin is pragmatic about the potential of increasing sales of Jerseys, and says it is more about protecting market share and improving growing systems.

“The category is seeing steady sales, and bucking the trend of potato consumption decline,” he says. “How you introduce the Jersey Royal season is key – you can have a really good season off the back of that, or you can have an average season. You can’t just put Jersey Royals on the shelf and expect them to sell. There is also lots of competition from places such as Cornwall and Pembrokeshire, and importing from Jersey is the same price as importing from Egypt.”

New category insight manager Rowena Porter also highlights the importance of marketing for such a seasonal product. “People don’t understand the existence of seasonality any more – they can get what they want all year round, so they don’t always understand the difference between a stored potato and new season Jersey Royals,” she says. “Generations ago everyone understood and looked forward the start of the new season.”

With this in mind, the marketing clout and consumer insight of the wider group has certainly come at the right time for JRC, while Jersey Royals are one part of Britain’s history that is powering firmly into the future.

Royal blood

A Jersey Royal is early potato variety International Kidney with a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status. As it has been protected for around 130 years the plants now look different and have different characteristics to other International Kidney plants. To be classified as Jersey Royal, the seed must be able to be traced back to Jersey seed, which is sent from the island up to Scottish science institute SASA for cloning, before being transported back and grown as mini tubers and seed potatoes.

Something sweet

Last year saw the launch of the first-ever Jersey-grown sweet potatoes into local Waitrose stores. Grown as a complementary crop to indoor Jersey Royals, the sweet potatoes are high-yielding but require curing in humid temperatures before being transferred to cold stores, according to technical director Mike Renouard. “We will be increasing the volumes of sweet potatoes for next year so there will be enough to supply mainland Waitrose,” he says. Waste is bought by the zoo next door, who use outgrade sweet potatoes as part of their animal feed. “Obviously as consumers, gorillas don’t give a stuff about what size their potatoes are,” says Renouard.