The great Norfolk potato blight

Click to follow
The Independent Online
All is not well in the sleepy village of Upwell, Norfolk. Peter Howgego shakes his head ruefully. He stares resignedly into his cavernous warehouse, now completely empty save for a pile of potato sacks in one corner. "I was so shocked," he says. "And the upsetting thing is, it's an inside job. I suspect it was someone local."

Howgego, 40, and his brother Robert, 44, are the latest victims of "spud rustlers", groups of thieves who operate mainly in Norfolk and Lincolnshire, the "potato belt"of England. Last week, in the dead of night, a van drove up, parked outside the Howgegos' warehouse, loaded up six tons of their produce and drove off with the equivalent of pounds 2,700.

Normally, the humble spud is about as desirable as the earth it is buried in. But this year it is a prestige product, as revered as caviar or truffles. This is due more to supply and demand than its cordon bleu qualities. According to Robert, crop results in Britain and Europe have been disastrous. "The whole of northern Europe has been in trouble with bad weather conditions. Usually Holland sells to us, but this year it's been the other way round."

The Potato Marketing Board reports a similar story of scarcity. In recent years farmers experienced a surplus, so last year they decided to plant less. In addition, the wet weather during harvesting last autumn made it difficult to store the produce.Potatoes are susceptible to soft rot, which can turn a whole store into a nasty gooey mess.

This potato drought has brought a certain amount of drama to the otherwise tranquil setting of Upwell. Farmers are on their guard, knowing they are sitting on potential gold mines. People used to trust each other, but now there is gossip in the cluster of shops along the high street. "This sort of thing has never happened in the 30 years that I've lived here," says Brian Tweed, the local butcher. "We're not used to it at all." Such a change has created an atmosphere of vulnerability and suspicion.

These rustlers, it seems, will stop at nothing. Since April, Norfolk police have dealt with a spate of midnight raids in which warehouses are broken into and tons of potatoes loaded into lorries and driven away.

It is not only farmers who are at risk. This month a chip shop owner in King's Lynn had several bags seized. Two weeks ago, the police issued a warning: "Farmers and wholesalers beware. Your common-or-garden spud is a target for thieves." Crime Stoppers is offering a pounds 500 reward for details leading to their arrest.

The Howgegos grow the Maris Piper variety used by chip shops. "Everyone who had them asked for more," explains Robert. "They make a wonderful fry." Chip shop owners around the country are crying out for them, paying pounds l4 for a 55lb bag rather than the normal pounds 7. Unlike newer, cheaper, crop potatoes, which make for a more rubbery and tasteless chip, Maris Pipers have that coveted crispy texture after frying and they store well.

In the shops, maincrop potatoes have more than quadrupled in price, rising from, on average, 6p a pound to an all-time high of 29p a pound. In such a lucrative niche, it is hardly surprising that the spud rustler will go to such lengths.

What sort of characters are these potato fiends, and who do they work for? "I suspect they're people in London who get in touch with the local knowledge to carry it out. You can bet your life they're sold to chip shop owners," says Robert.

"I think it's people from outside the village," says David Bernard, a parish councillor. "We only get that sort of trouble coming in from places like London and King's Lynn."

Gossip in Upwell's local pub, The Five Bells, is marked by resentment against the farmers. "Never pity them," says the potato merchandiser James Brown, a stocky man covered in tattoos. "I hate the farmers. What have they ever given to us, eh?" His friends drink their pints and nod quietly in agreement.

The Howgegos admit that potato farmers in the area have capitalised on this year's demand. "But they should understand," says Robert, cruising down Upwell's main street in his Saab convertible, "that when the farmers do well from potatoes, the whole economy here improves."

Next year, there may be less cause for local resentment, since farmers will be planning a larger yield and a lowering of prices. As Robert says: "That's when the trouble will stop. They'll go back to ram-raiding shops and nicking televisions instead."