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John M. Marshall: A storied career in the potato industry

For countless generations, the simple potato has not only been a cornerstone of the diet worldwide but has also woven itself into the very fabric of Scotland’s cultural identity. At the heart of this industry’s remarkable journey stands a figure whose influence, and dedication have been pivotal in steering its course – John M Marshall.

Marshall’s extensive career, which has impressively spanned more than half a century, has earned him widespread respect and admiration. His profound insights and experiences provide an invaluable lens through which we can examine this crucial agricultural sector.

In an exclusive interview with Potato News Today, John M. Marshall shared his journey and insights from a long, illustrious career in the potato industry. Marshall’s story is not just about potatoes; it’s a tale of evolution, challenges, and passion that spans over six decades.

Early Roots and Family Influence

John M Marshall’s journey in the Scottish potato industry is deeply intertwined with his family’s legacy. His father, a graduate of Edinburgh College of Agriculture in 1928, was a trailblazer in the field, particularly in virus-tested seed production using tobacco plants as markers. This innovative approach not only showcased a scientific curiosity but also a deep dedication to improving potato farming practices.

Marshall fondly remembers, “My Father… He developed a keen interest in potatoes, pioneering in virus-tested seed production.”

Growing up in such an environment, where agriculture and specifically potatoes were a central focus, inevitably shaped Marshall’s career path and his passion for the industry.

Formative Years and Education

Marshall’s childhood and early adult life were a comprehensive apprenticeship in agriculture, especially in potato farming. Born in 1950, he was immersed in a world where potatoes were more than just a crop; they were a way of life. Embarking on his storied career during an era when the potato industry was heavily reliant on manual labor and had yet to embrace mechanization, Marshall reminisces about the days when each potato was harvested by hand (tattie picking) – a time that seems almost alien compared to the highly automated and efficient processes of today.

Covering potatoes, 1956. Credit John M Marshall

It was this early, tactile experience with the literal fruits of labor that instilled in Marshall a deep-seated respect for the tireless efforts poured into every harvest season.

He describes his early experiences with a certain nostalgia, “Farm Boy jobs to fit my growth working in the tobacco house picking leaves, testing, hand lifting potatoes… ongoing conversations, projects at school,(I learned recently a Vavilov (Russian) experiment removing the eyes of a potato to induce mutations) and finally summer rogueing of our 50 acres of VT potatoes.”

This early exposure to the practical and theoretical aspects of potato farming laid a robust foundation for his future career, including a BSc degree in Agriculture at Edinburgh University with summer holidays inspecting growing crops, mostly Up to Dates, in the North East of Scotland for the Department of Agriculture.

A Flourishing Career

John M Marshall’s professional life in the potato industry is a testament to his adaptability, expertise, and passion. Starting his career with the Potato Marketing Board in Cupar, Fife, he quickly climbed the ranks due to his knowledge and dedication.

Among his numerous accolades, Marshall’s active participation in the ‘Potato Marketing Scheme’ stands out. This government-backed initiative was designed to bring stability to the fluctuating potato market within Scotland. Marshall’s advisory role in the scheme’s execution is a testament to his intricate understanding of the market’s intricacies and his unwavering dedication to ensuring the industry’s long-term viability.

Reflecting on this period, Marshall says, “Return to farm, now run by my brother James, then I apply and settle in a job with the Potato Marketing Board Cupar Fife… Assistant, then Area supervisor then Deputy divisional for Scotland.”

His roles varied widely, giving him a comprehensive view of the industry from production to quality control and market management, ensuring growers understood the regulations with regard to quotas, quality standards and support buying of surpluses to stabilize prices.

Watching the Industry Evolve

Witnessing first-hand the evolution of the potato industry, Marshall observed significant technological advancements and shifts in farming practices.

He notes, “Soil preparation, disappearance of the horse! Reversible ploughing, de-stoners; bed formers chemical usage… Storage from short term pits to cattle sheds and then potato stores to long-term environmentally controlled box stores.”

These advancements, from the disappearance of traditional farming methods to the adoption of modern storage techniques, have dramatically altered the landscape of potato farming.

The Highs and Lows

“Milking the potato” by Iain Marshall. Credit John M Marshall

The path of the potato industry has not been without its share of adversities, ranging from the volatility of markets to the looming threats posed by climate change.

Yet, through these trials, Marshall’s resilience and capacity for adaptation have shone brightly, emblematic of his profound commitment. The potato industry, like any agricultural sector, is subject to various challenges and fluctuations.

The shortening of the supply chain and focus of growers to supply specific markets seed, prepacking or processing. The jobs were rapidly changing and you had to go with the flow or leave the industry

Marshall speaks candidly about the difficulties faced, such as weather extremities and market volatility.

He shares, “The weather, droughts of the mid 70’s, production dropping 2 million tonnes from the average 6 million for the UK then floods; grower dissatisfaction with established carved-in-rock systems, PMB handling surpluses; as a trader balancing seed supplies with anticipated demand… finding new overseas markets.”

His experiences highlight the resilience and strategic thinking needed to navigate these challenges successfully.

Consumer Trends

Marshall also provides valuable insights into changing consumer trends and their impact on the potato industry. He notes a shift in dietary habits, saying, “Eating less every meal would have potatoes… Fast foods, fries, McDonald’s, KFC, etc. the frozen sector, ready meals and potato noodles just emerging.”

These observations from John underscore the need for the potato industry to adapt to changing consumer preferences and explore new product opportunities.

Global vs. Local Industry

Discussing the Scottish potato industry in a global context, Marshall emphasizes Scotland’s strengths and challenges.

He says, “Excellent traditional skills passed down from generation to generation, and attitude outstanding when it comes to Research and Development. Governments need to get a true grasp of what is happening and what it means to achieve sustainability, gene editing, and trade agreements in the wake of Brexit.”

His perspective underscores the importance of balancing traditional practices with innovation to maintain a competitive edge in the global market.

Beyond the Office: Education and Advocacy

British Library: An Oral History of Post War Farming interview.
Credit John M Marshall

John’s commitment to the potato industry extended far beyond his day job. He was deeply invested in educating the public and future generations about the importance and nuances of potato farming.

Engaging in activities like delivering “Tattie Talks” to various clubs and schools, Marshall shared his wealth of knowledge.

He recalls, “Tattie talks to gardeners, Rotary, Probus, any club that wanted a speaker, and also schools,” showcasing his enthusiasm for spreading awareness about potatoes. I think education of the younger generation across the board his vital how a good healthy nutritious food like the potato is produced. In the classroom and on various rural venues through the Royal Highland Educational Trust and the independent ‘Grow your own potatoes initiative‘, we have a chance of achieving it.”

Advice to Newcomers

Offering advice to those new to the industry, Marshall emphasizes the importance of long-term commitment and adaptability.

He advises, “You have to be in it for the long term, be flexible, be prepared for ongoing challenges. Production costs capital usage is massive, and profits can be a roller coaster, no doubt about that. And the ability to foresee what is required, specialized skills help and courage…”

Personal Favorites

Heritage varieties. Credit John M Marshall

Marshall’s personal connection to potatoes is evident in his preference for certain varieties. “I tend to think and prefer heritage varieties,” he says.

“Earlies Arran Pilot, Duke of York, Sharpes Express – in that order for harvest combination of taste, texture, and nostalgia…

“Salads such as Charlotte and Belle de Fontenay. Specials include Ratte, Pink Fir Apple. Maincrop Maris Piper, Golden Wonder and Kerrs Pink with haggis and neeps,” he says.

“These varieties are not the way ahead for the industry, but in that respect I am stuck in a rut…”

Future Outlook

Looking ahead, Marshall shares his predictions for the potato industry, both in Scotland and globally. He anticipates significant shifts in consumption patterns, noting, “Europe consumption on the decline; India and China consolidating; emerging Brazil and Africa. Those responsible for consistence supplies of healthy nutritious food need to fully understand the potato.

“We are only getting to know potatoes over that last two hundred years, whereas the Andean farmers have had over 9,000 years of experience with the crop! We need to take on board the relevance of this important food crop.”

His forecast points to the evolving nature of the global food market and the potential for growth in emerging economies.

Legacy and Contributions

Reflecting on his contributions to the potato industry, Marshall expresses a humble view of his legacy, focusing on his efforts to preserve and share knowledge.

He states, “Perhaps the ability to hoard and store a wide range of potato information. Maybe my ‘haverings‘ with The British Library – at least it’s there, and it won’t just be dumped in the skip unlike some publications on my shelves. Those that forget the lessons of history are condemned to relive them.”

John M Marshall’s story is not just a narrative of a career in the potato industry; it is a testament to a life dedicated to understanding, improving, and sharing knowledge about this vital crop. From his early days on the family farm to his extensive career in various facets of the industry and his efforts in education and advocacy,

Marshall’s journey reflects the evolving nature of potato farming and trading in Scotland and beyond. His insights and experiences provide a valuable perspective on the past, present, and future of the Scottish potato industry – and the global potato industry as well.

Source: John M Marshall
Contact:
John would be happy to hear your comments and ideas. Feel free to send him a message at johnmarshall278@btinternet.com

Editor & Publisher: Lukie Pieterse


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