The Great Potato Emergency of 2010


Carol Ann Sayle

While folks up north are enjoying their just-dug (bona fide) "new" potatoes, some of us in Texas are fixin' to plant our second crop of the year, the fall crop. Since certified seed potatoes aren't available to us at this time of year, we use potatoes from our spring crop. No longer new, many of the spuds are showing signs of sprouting. Even though we store them in a dry cooler, they seem to know it's time for them to produce the next generation.

Potatoes, like everything else we grow, are great some years and so-so other years. While last year's crop was of the so-so category, this has been such a bountiful potato year that we couldn't dig them all. In fact, Larry, my co-farmer and husband, turned under a tenth of the crop, as he needed the land for something else. That was a luxury soil amendment for sure.

Kennebecs are my favorites—they make the creamiest mashed potatoes—so I took this calamity personally.

The only flaw in our spring potatoes was that some of the White Kennebecs surprised us with dark spots inside. This was a new phenomenon for us in our 20 years of growing potatoes. A university lab to which we sent samples judged the problem "insect damage." As I paid the lab bill, I wrote a note saying that while we've battled insects before, this was not insect damage. This was something stranger than that.

At the farm stand, I dropped the price drastically, warned customers about the possible hidden defect affecting ten percent of the potatoes in the baskets, and worried. It was like negative selling. Buy them if you dare! Some relished gambling with what looked like beautiful potatoes to save a lot of money. Others, not risk takers, turned abruptly to the unaffected Red La Sodas, at regular price.

Kennebecs are my favorites—they make the creamiest mashed potatoes—so I took this calamity personally. I hated that I had to tell customers to suspiciously cut them in half before they boiled them or shredded them for hash browns. The pleasure aspect of preparing just-dug potatoes would be missing.

One market morning a farmer, visiting from up north—from potato land—noticed the warning sign and we discussed what the problem could be. Right away, as I cut open a specimen, one that happened to have, not just a few dark dots, but a hollowed-out, black cavity, she said, a bit peeved "Ha! It's the cold and wet winter you folks had down here. You got our rain this winter."

"I'm real sorry about that," I replied, "I guess we got your 'hollow heart.' How 'bout we trade next year?"

The next day, the lab left a spirited but mysterious message on our phone: "Call back quickly, as this is an emergency." I did, and the technician explained that my note got her attention and she researched the problem and basically gave me the same report that the farmer had: hollow heart, caused by a wet, cold winter. I relaxed, as those conditions will likely never again affect our potatoes. It'll be something else.

Each year is different, and the changes depend almost entirely on the weather. Down here on the frontier, the years alternate between extreme drought and unruly floods. Winters choose between dry cold and wet cold. Summers are single-minded: hot.

Because heat adds another dilemma to fall planting, we won't be using the Kennebecs, as we are still spooked over them. Instead, we'll plant the stalwart Red La Sodas in late August. And instead of planting them in fertilized soil, we will wait to side-dress the plants when they are six or seven inches tall. They can handle it then.

We learned one year that fertilizer combined with sandy soil and extreme heat, notwithstanding a layer of straw mulch, will cook the potatoes to death. And like any leftovers held over for almost three months, those "cooked" potatoes won't prove tasty by Thanksgiving.

The American Feast Day is the motivation behind our second crop of potatoes: to have authentically "new" potatoes grace our customers' groaning Turkey Day tables. We hope that this year is the year for that farming coup!

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Carol Ann Sayle is co-founder and co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm, a five-acre urban, organic farm in Austin, Texas.

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