In fifteen years or so of farm forays I have watched potatoes come and go in the gourmet revival of heirloom everything. Novelty candy stripes and blue or purple potatoes appear one season and vanish the next, as growers learn which kinds best suit their soil and cooks realize that color seldom indicates better flavor. Chefs discover that the secret of the best puree they ever tasted was not the Ratte variety that Parisian chefs swear by but the equal weight of butter whipped in before serving. In my experiments dark-horse varieties have often turned out to taste far better than touted ones. As always, variety counts less than climate and the care the farmer takes.
I was always puzzled, though, as to why so little potato news came from Maine, which for even longer than Idaho has been synonymous with potatoes in this country. It is also part of my heritage: my grandfather traveled every fall from Connecticut to northern Maine, where he bought the state's famous seed potatoes to sell to southern New England farmers. I learned on a recent visit to Aroostook County, one of my grandfather's destinations, that Maine has kept its reputation among the country's most reliable suppliers of disease-resistant seed potatoes even as the state's potato industry has otherwise diminished.
Few small farmers have stepped in to claim Maine's unused potato fields and grow the old varieties for which chefs and home cooks pay a premium. But on my trip I did find what might be the country's best source of those heirloom potatoes worth growing and eating: a strictly organic farm in the heart of what was once traditional potato-growing territory. It is run by an earthy, sympathetic couple whose entrepreneurial spirit and canny respect for the land my grandfather would have appreciated—even if their founding philosophy, and their hairstyles, would have baffled him.
When I drove into Wood Prairie Farm, a few miles from the several potato cooperatives remaining along a stretch of Route 1 in northern Aroostook County, Jim Gerritsen was leaning over a curious tractor painted pea green. He had rigged its trailer as a potato planter, with a few homemade parts jutting from the base and sides. "Two eyes apiece," he said, cutting a long seed potato into four chunks. "It's the eyes that sprout." He laid the chunks, some of which had already sprouted, on a black rubber conveyor belt at the back of the planter. "We put this on," he said, pointing to a spade-shaped length of metal at the front, "because our soil is so rocky it could break an ordinary potato planter."
Aroostook hardly resembles the Maine that draws tourists from all over the world, the Maine of lobster boats and evergreen-dotted seascapes. The county is vast, as big as Connecticut and Rhode Island combined; it has sky-wide open plains, and hills covered with pines. It's easy to see why some New Englanders have an almost visceral annual longing to go north, for the hunting, fishing, and fresh air. It's easy to see, too, why the farmland appealed to English and Irish settlers, who recognized that the cool, damp climate would be ideal for growing potatoes. They also discovered that the soil, however rocky, was better than what they had left behind; "caribou loam," as in the native reindeer that once lived in the Maine woods, has just the right mixture of clay, silt, and sand. Through the 1940s Maine was the country's largest potato producer, and Aroostook County produced 90 percent of Maine potatoes.
Today the Maine woods are being methodically logged by Canadian and American timber companies, and the chief planting in what once was the chief agricultural county in New England has become trees. The acreage devoted to potatoes shrank from 200,000 in the late 1940s to 64,000 in 2000, a loss of nearly 70 percent. The soil is still just as good for potatoes. But the big buyers don't want Maine potatoes anymore, because, like all potatoes grown without steady, controlled irrigation, they are uneven in shape. The widespread use of irrigation in the West—and, especially, the standards of uniformity that McDonald's set in the 1950s for its french fries—made the industry move.
Running a farm in Aroostook County was an unusual career choice for a young man who grew up in San Francisco. But farming ran in Gerritsen's blood: both his parents had been raised on farms and were part of the postwar migration from country to city. ("My grandfather kept telling my dad that farming was hard, that there wasn't much money in it," Gerritsen told me. "My dad listened.") While studying forestry at a California college, Gerritsen decided that his place was on a farm, not in school. From the look of him today, that decision was inevitable: his craggy features, deep-set green eyes, and wind-etched face immediately identify him as a man of the land. The gray-white beard and shoulder-length hair identify him as a child of the 1960s.
The decline of potato farming in Maine was what made Gerritsen think he could afford good farmland there, and get a head start on the organic farming he intended to practice. Land was cheap, and Aroostook County was too remote to attract developers. Farmland was still clear: former potato farmers had not yet planted it all with trees, a low-maintenance crop, and new-growth forests had not yet covered abandoned farmland. The lapsed time without any kind of planting meant that much Aroostook farmland would more than meet the requirements of organic farming. Gerritsen told me that he was also drawn by Maine's reputation for having "good, friendly, down-to-earth people living an outdoor tradition."
In 1976 Gerritsen bought Wood Prairie Farm, in Bridgewater, a short drive down Route 1 from the town of Presque Isle, the effective capital of Aroostook County, and only a few miles from the Canadian border. At first he grew what he thought the organic market wanted: vegetables, apples for cider, pumpkins. He also raised cattle and lambs for organic meat. But none of these paid well enough to support the farm.
Potatoes seemed the least likely solution. What market remains is mostly for "chipping" potatoes—unbeautiful potatoes not shapely enough for McDonald's but sufficient for industrial french fries. Then Gerritsen thought of seed potatoes. A significant portion of the Maine potato market has always been for seed potatoes, which are fully mature and have been grown carefully (and labor-intensively) to ensure that they are disease-free. Potatoes left over from the previous year's harvest are likely to be plagued by bacteria, viruses, or fungi; late blight, which caused the Irish potato famine, remained a danger to the U.S. crop through the 1980s. Starting in the 1920s, Maine set itself up as the country's most scrupulous producer of seed potatoes. "Maine certified" meant the best and safest potatoes when my grandfather was buying and selling them, and the phrase still carries great weight in the potato world. Gerritsen could fill a big gap by producing certified organic seed potatoes, and the most appealing varieties would be heirlooms and traditional Maine potatoes that had fallen out of use.
To find these, and for inspiration on reaching customers directly instead of losing profits to middlemen, Gerritsen listened carefully to Chris Holmes, a Maine farmer who through the late 1980s sold historical potato varieties by way of a "potato-of-the-month club." When I was first sampling heirloom potatoes, I spoke with Holmes, who thought he might be the only farmer growing them in Maine; on my recent trip I visited him in his apartment near Presque Isle, where, though sidelined by Parkinson's disease, he tries to convince farmers of the economic benefits of growing heirlooms. He didn't have the chance on his own farm, he told me, to see through the full potential of his idea, and he was somewhat discouraged that few farmers had taken his lead. He was proud, though, of Gerritsen, who has been his prize pupil, and told me how much he hopes that other farmers will copy Wood Prairie's success.
Gerritsen was helped greatly by his wife, Megan, a nearly local girl (although she grew up in New York State, she had worked on nearby farms and has family in Maine). Megan's hair, parted down the middle with a braid around her head, may be as hippie-ish as her husband's, but it would be less surprising to my grandfather, whose own father moved to the small Connecticut town where I grew up in hopes of emulating the agricultural success and familial closeness of the plain-living, plain-dressing members of a colony of the Swiss Apostolic Church, which still flourishes there. The Gerritsens have three small children, who help try out potato recipes, and many cats and a few dogs to finish off leftovers; during my visit all of them, along with several of the neighbors who work at the farm, wandered in and out of the cozy, pine-paneled Wood Prairie office, which is above the temperature-controlled storage and packing cellar. Megan cooks new heirlooms as Jim plants and harvests them, and everyone offers an opinion.
The couple decided at the outset to go for inner beauty. Even the organic market, which is becoming increasingly industrialized, grows "faceless, nameless potatoes that yield well and look pretty but don't have very good flavor," Megan says. The Gerritsens came to the same conclusion as anyone does who tastes a lot of heirlooms: yellow-fleshed potatoes have a fuller, richer, more buttery flavor, but skin color and flesh color other than yellow mean little. Red or purple skins are usually just cosmetic. Blue or purple flesh, which usually turns an ugly gray when cooked, in my experience tastes like cardboard.
After a few years of planting and sampling more than a hundred kinds of potatoes, the Gerritsens narrowed to sixteen the varieties they would grow and ship directly to customers as both seed and table potatoes, including an all-blue and an all-red potato to satisfy the need for novelty. They also try new varieties every season. Their colorful catalogue—full of recipes, good information, and homespun but not hokey gardening tips, and of course printed on flecked recycled paper—has won them customers and friends all over the country. (Their Web site is www.woodprairie.com.) Among the customers the Gerritsens particularly enjoy talking with are gardeners who rely on Wood Prairie Farm's certified organic seed potatoes. Advising gardeners on techniques and varieties that might work best in their soil keeps the couple in touch with people from every region, and also gives them an early hint of spring in the long, long Maine winter.
The heirlooms most people try first, and the ones that brought potatoes new respect, are called fingerlings, for their long, thin shape. They often have superior flavor, and are prominent in the Wood Prairie catalogue: Russian Banana and Swedish Peanut, both of them among the best-tasting fingerlings and both yellow-fleshed; and the Gerritsens' favorite, Rose Finn Apple, a rare yellow-fleshed fingerling with pink skin.
But the potatoes I've lately come to appreciate are more like the kinds my grandfather might have speculated on during his annual trips north—homely, irregular round potatoes that fell out of favor when industry demanded uniform french-fry vehicles. The Gerritsens honor state tradition by growing round whites, the potatoes that brought Maine fame. Instead of Green Mountain and Irish Cobbler, the original commercial varieties, they have found newer round potatoes with better flavor, such as Onaway and one from Cornell University called Prince Hairy. They also grow a few round varieties with yellow flesh, and these were the ones that pleased me most when I sampled a generous selection from last year's crop: the familiar Yukon Gold, which along with Yellow Finns are the only widely available specialty potatoes with real flavor; the red-skinned Rose Gold; and Island Sunshine, a creamy-fleshed and exceptionally blight-resistant potato developed by two passionate Dutch-born organic breeders on nearby Prince Edward Island, another longtime potato-growing capital.
Island Sunshine's bright flavor and sunny color gave me the same sense of excited discovery I felt when, in the 1980s, I first tasted Ozette, still my favorite fingerling (and one the Gerritsens have occasionally sold). The hardy and disease-resistant Island Sunshine also makes a good starter potato for a neophyte gardener. Island Sunshine, Maine White Onaway, and Rose Finn Apple are moist-fleshed potatoes especially suited for mashing, meaning they are ideal for champ—a simple, satisfying dish I ate often on a recent trip to Ireland (see Palate at Large, following, for a recipe).
September is a month of intense activity at the farm, when all the varieties the Gerritsens planted in May are ready for harvesting, and Jim and his helpers use more of his home-rigged machines to dig them. An order of Wood Prairie potatoes arrives in handsome paper bags with a few holes punched in them for air. The back of each bag is illustrated with a drawing of the Gerritsen family, and the potatoes inside still have a dusting of dirt. They have been only brushed before packing; washing, the standard industry preparation, leaves potatoes vulnerable to age and rot. Stitched to each bag is a handsome postcard showing the potato variety, modeled after the colorful fruit-crate labels that served as art in early-twentieth-century America. These postcards are a reminder that an admirable, exigent tradition is being carried forward where it had nearly died out—and that potato eaters can benefit from it all year.