Potatoes are one of the most versatile vegetables in our culture. We boil them, bake them, mash them, hash them, stuff them, fry them and steam them. Although they have been an agricultural staple since the 1800′s in North America, they were grown in Peru and Bolivia since 8000 to 5000 BC.
Fast forward to present day, and think about how many varieties of potatoes you see in your local grocery store. The common ones seem to be Yukon Gold, Russets, and Chieftain Red, and probably a white variety. According to the SpudSmart website, “Statistics Canada’s production estimates for 2013 peg the total planted potato acreage in Canada at 361,600 acres.” And although there are close to 5000 potato varieties in the world (3000 of which are grown in the Andes alone!), here in North America, we grow 60 – 80 varieties.
As with all plants, different varieties have different attributes: some potatoes are better suited to baking, some will store better over the winter, some are more resistant to blight and other diseases. Which brings me to my next point….
Commercial growers plant large acreages, and are dedicated to growing only potatoes. The fields are often planted with potatoes one year, and then with a cover crop, such as rye, the next. If done more frequently, crop rotation can be very useful in reducing the risk of fungus diseases and blightWhen seed potatoes are planted in the ground, they have been coated with combinations of fungicide and insecticide. As they grown through the various stages, more insecticides and pesticides may need to be applied. The more intense the farming, the more disease and insect pressure there will be. This past summer, we observed the various spray applications that were done on a local potato field nearby. It’s no wonder that many commercial growers will not eat the very potatoes they are growing (read more here).
There are many tips to growing potatoes organically, to eliminate the need for these chemicals. Our local garden centre offered at least 8 different varieties this spring. Combined with the seed potatoes we saved from last year’s crop, we had about six or seven different kinds in the garden this year. I encourage everyone to try growing a few plants in their garden next year!
We’ve always grown our own potatoes. We plant them after the last frost, and need to keep them “hilled up” as the potatoes start to develop underground. The most time consuming part (aside from digging them up in the early fall) is to keep vigilant for Colorado potato beetles. These prolific insects usually appear early summer, as the plants are ready to start flowering. Rather than using a fungicide dust, we prefer to pick them off by hand, keeping on the lookout for the eggs they lay on the leaves’ undersides.
When it comes time to dig up the potatoes, we look forward to seeing what we will be harvesting. Because they grow underground, there is no real way to know what kind of yields we will be getting. And because we grow many different varieties, it’s fun to see what colour the next potato plant in the garden will be!
In the meanwhile, the best place to source the tastiest, healthiest potatoes is at your local farmers’ market, or small farm stand. Take the opportunity to find out what the growing practices were, ie. whether they used fungicides or sprayed their crops for insects. You may find unusual varieties there, too.
Julie Baumlisberger – Food from a Farmers Point of View