Back-breaking manual work
Once upon a time, potato picking was dirty, heavy, back-breaking manual work. Generations of rural families spent long cold days picking the vegetables by hand from the cold mud. As their baskets filled, the weight added more strain to already aching backs.
Nowadays, nobody thinks of doing such work. It’s all done by machine. But what happens when it’s harvest time and the machine breaks down?
That’s the time for the Agricultural Engineer to save the day.
Kevin Williamson is one of Britain’s such engineers and he says, “I don’t think the general public even knows about us – they don’t know we’re here. They see a plate of food, they don’t realise what it’s taken to get it there.”
“The farmer is the guy who’s growing it, but what if he breaks down?” Many of the big companies that buy potatoes demand timed deliveries, with penalties if deliveries are late. “So,” says Kevin, “If a grader, or whatever, goes, you’ve got to go then, and get it going.”
He recalls one customer. “He rang; he had a broken shaft on a potato washer. He had a load booked in, how long would I be? I got the welder out, went over, and 20 minutes later, he was running again. It saved the day. But it’s what we do all the time.”
Not every problem is so straightforward. “It can be from an electronic diode, a clutch, a shaft, a hydraulic wheel motor leaking oil, chains jumping, belts slipping – anything. Once, it was cut through the power cable between the harvester and the control box.”
When the season is busy, Kevin’s days can be long indeed. “For instance, we went to Thirsk to repair a machine. We left here at 5 am, came back, got another call, a guy had lost a wheel at Bagby. We had to go to near Leeds to get parts off another machine. I was on my own, and I got stuck fast in the field with the van. I had to get towed out by a forklift, to go back to the other field near Bagby. I got the new parts back onto the machine, and it started to rain – then I got stuck fast in the field AGAIN, I had to get towed out. By then, it was about 8.15pm, it had been a long day – but I got everybody going again.”
Kevin has developed his skills as his career goes by. His workshop is equipped not only with traditional heavy engineering tools such as lathe, mill and welding gear, but also high tech computers and cameras. He may fit replacement parts to repair a machine, or, if these are not available, he makes them himself.
“When I started,” he explains, “Machines were simpler, not computer controlled. These aren’t like a domestic washing machine, where it’s often cheaper to buy a new one than repair a breakdown. No, we have to fix it. If it’s a printed circuit board, we can either buy a new board, or take it to a guy who fixes them for me. We get it all back together, so it’s all working.
Kevin: “I’d like to interest more young people into coming into farm engineering. There’s the electronics and hydraulics side. For youngsters, they just see farming as dirty and mucky. But now, there’s so much high-tech in it.
For instance, he says, “GPS. The equipment is roughly £20 – 30,000. But, one company – a big farming company – saved over £100,000 on sprays in their first year. “Kevin explains, “If you’re spraying a field and judging where to spray, there’s a tendency for some overlap of the spray. This results in two things wrong. One, too much chemical is costing you money, and two, by having too much on, it’s leaving residues. That’s why all this technology is very interesting.”
High investment crop
Even without the latest GPS technology, potatoes, says Kevin, are a ‘high investment crop’. He runs through the machines you would need, should you wish to start out as a potato farmer: Ridger, Stoner, Tiller, Planter, Fertiliser applicator, Sprayer, Harvester. “You also need two tractors to tow them: a wide wheel and a narrow wheel. Plus, once harvested, you need trailers, an elevator, possibly a forklift truck, and a climate-controlled storage building.”
Kevin can supply second hand equipment, but even so, the costs run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. As for Kevin, his investment is in the tools and spares he needs to carry out any repair, anytime, anywhere.
Kevin is on call 24 hours a day, every day of the year. And with the pressure on when a customer calls, why does Kevin do it?
He says, “I get a buzz, because I can get it going again for people, and can see the satisfaction in their face. You will be running, and do what you want to do, and carry on with your job, and make your money – and that feeds down to us. Its true satisfaction: we’ve got it going for you.
Read more about Kevin’s work in Countryman Magazine, August 2016 issue.
Contact Kevin at williamson-potatoes@hotmail