Alex James: Is this the shape of farming to come?

Rural Notebook
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The Independent Online

Cropping potatoes in Norfolk a couple of weeks ago: a cold grey battleship of a day. I watched a machine as big and mad as the Cutty Sark eating a field the size of the City of London, sputtering spuds into a 25-ton dumper truck that trundled back and forth between the harvester and a highly improbable Dr Seuss-type conveyor-belt system in the yard. Four people who didn't speak English watched potatoes go by on the conveyor, pulling out specious twigs and stones.

The trundling belts led ultimately to a cathedral sized shed where a mountain of potatoes was forming with the pleasing, mesmeric qualities of a fire or a waterfall. The potatoes must have been sitting in the ground for a few weeks already, and they'll stay in that shed until well after Christmas. Letting them age for a while actually improves their flavour, gives time for a skin to form.

This was a state-of-the-art operation. The potatoes were Burbank Russets, perfect for chips, and their ultimate destination was for MacDonald's fries and Pringles. This is the way we grow potatoes, the way we grow nearly all our food: Planted and harvested on a vast scale, almost totally by machines, huge machines working for huge corporations. I had a minor epiphany as I contemplated the raw material for all that marketing genius: a muddy pile of spuds in a shed.

In another couple of decades the immigrant potato sorters will have become redundant too, replaced by machines that can spot sticks and stones. The cropping machines already practically run on autopilot as it is: incredibly sophisticated. Soon there won't be such thing as a farmer any more.

I've done some research, and I think it would be possible to build a shed where cows walk in one end and cheese pops out the other: An automatic cheese generator. There is no reason why it shouldn't work. That's what I'm talking about.

Home-grown delights

Just as with children, the poshest, loveliest, most life-affirming potatoes are always one's own, though. I'm down to my last bag of old-fashioned, hand-grown spuds, and I'm saving them for my birthday later this month. They probably cost more than truffles to produce by hand, but hey, they make fantastic chips.

A right royal sack full

I managed to have a peek at Prince Charles's potato stash last week. I went to Home Farm in Tetbury to pitch his people an idea for the world's first organomatic cheese generator, but I got a bit carried away when I saw the spud shed. The farm manager gave me a sack of the royal spuds to take away. I've been eating them with truffles all weekend. Life is good.