Watching Potatoes Grow – Complete 3 Part Saga

Part One – Spring 2017

We sent investigative reporter Emma Margraf into the field (literally, into the field) this year to explore the process of ‘Farming’ in our own community.  What follows is the first of three parts as we delve into the mysteries of the Potato.

By Emma Margraf

  Potatoes, says Jennifer Belknap, are like a treasure hunt — especially for kids. When I came to her with our idea for a story about the life cycle of a crop, starting with the planting of the seed in the spring, checking up on it’s progress in the summer, and following up in the fall with a look at a dish that features the crop at Our Table in Olympia. Our Table is a regular customer for Rising River Farm, which Belknap runs. It’s a local farm to table partnership, and potatoes are a versatile, powerful staple that keeps them both going. There are tons of varieties that go into hundreds of different recipes. All year long, everyone loves potatoes.

Potatoes are a regenerative crop. You make potatoes from old potatoes. Rising River starts planting potatoes in late April and May by adding organic fertilizer to the soil on a wintered-over crop. They can’t quite predict the day, they just look for a time when the soil looks dry and in good condition. One person gets on their 1940s era Super-A Tractor, and three to four people drop one-inch chunks of potatoes in the dug out soil. Then the potatoes are covered with soil by the person driving the Super-A Tractor, and the soil is tilled. The farm crew usually does this three to four times.

There are many varieties of potatoes, but Belknap mentioned one to me that has an interesting local history: the Ozette. One of their CSA members brought them a five-pound bag of Ozettes, which they used to grow. Their member told them that the Ozettes were originally brought to the Olympic Peninsula by the Spaniards, whose time there didn’t work out because the weather was too hard on their ships. Local tribes in the Peninsula needed a carbohydrate and took up growing this particular variety of fingerling from there, becoming its stewards. For generations Ozettes could only be found on tribal lands.

One of the wonderful things about potatoes is that they are an easy crop to grow. You can use potatoes you have, as long as they are organic and they are sprouting. Non-organic potatoes are often sprayed with chemicals that include a sprout inhibitor. Gardening enthusiasts should also beware that potatoes are prone to disease, something you can avoid by buying potato sprouts at one of the co-ops or at Eastside Farm and Garden. So plant at your own risk, but Belknap says if you have a problem with your potatoes you’ll know. It’s easy to spot.

The folks at Our Table are regular customers of Rising River, and frequent potato buyers. They reinvent their menu each season, so we won’t be able to predict what form the potatoes will take in the fall. Rising River likes Our Table so much that they asked them, very late in the season, to cater their crew appreciation dinner. They told Our Table what vegetables and herbs they had available on the farm for the dinner, and what ensued was an incredibly creative seven-course meal that Belknap describes as simply amazing. She could not have predicted how creative and delicious it would be- what a perfect farm to table expression of their appreciation to their crew.

Potatoes. They are breakfast, they are lunch, and they are dinner. They are one of the most versatile crops that exist. There is a niche potato dish that can please almost anyone. We hope you will follow us through the story of their planting at Rising River through the next two issues as we watch them grow, get harvested, and get set onto Our Table.

In the Summer Issue, our saga continues with the trials, tribulations, triumphs and tragedies of being a potato, growing on an unsuspecting farm in South Thurston County.  Will the potato make it to the Table (There’s a Haiku in that somewhere)? Will it survive its epic journey?  Find out in our Summer issue of Living Local – due on newsstands circa July 1, 2017.

Part Two – Summer 2017

Who Grows Your Potatoes?

By Quinn Johnson

If you read our spring issue, you probably learned all you could ever want to know (and more!) about potatoes. But as fascinating of a crop as they are, potatoes can’t talk to you or give you any insights on the process of farming. People, however, can. So for the summer issue of Living Local (and Part 2 of our 3-part series, From Seed to Kale), I set out to talk to some local farmers and farm workers and learn who these people are, where they come from, and what working on a farm is like. Unfortunately, due to a high volume of work during peak farm season, I was unable to talk to Jennifer Belknap, the co-owner of Rising River Farm (who was featured in our last article)so I decided to speak directly to some workers themselves.

I started off by talking to April Purdy, who has worked at Kirsop Farm, Urban Futures Farm (run by my father, TJ Johnson), and most recently Center for Natural Lands Management; she has experience working on farms of vastly varying scale. As one might expect, the labor pool for large-scale commercial farms and local, family-run farms are quite different. Large farms like Kirsop use mainly college students and immigrant labor; smaller ones like Urban Futures use all local labor, often college students (or recent graduates) who volunteer or work as interns.. April believes that most of the people who works on farms are there (excluding financial reasons) because they are “passionate about being environmentalists.” She enjoys the unique community this provides her with- everyone working toward a common goal, sharing similar values and a deep passion for good food.

And it’s by no means a small community.  Washington boasts the 4th-largest number of agricultural workers in all 50 states with 10,490 as of May 2016, according to the Washington State Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only California, Florida, and Arizona have more. We also pay our agriculture workers better; an average hourly wage of $13.19 and yearly mean wage of $27,430, significantly higher than any of the aforementioned states. Working in a field for many hours a day picking produce is by no means easy work. It’s good to know that our state values our agriculture workers and offers them fair compensation for their hard labor.

The average day of a local farm worker consists of harvesting in the morning and evening (when it’s cool), and lots and lots of weeding the crops during the heat of the day. You can think of farming as a profession in a similar manner to teaching- it’s seasonal work, only taking up around 9 months of the year, except you get winters off instead of summers. In Washington, we’re lucky to have one of the longest growing seasons in America, due to plentiful sun in the summer, rare winter freezes, and a temperate maritime climate year-round. You may think this isn’t relevant to non-farmers, but in all her agricultural experiences, April’s learned that “the first step to being sustainable is knowing where your food comes from.” And you are reading a paper published by  Sustainable South Sound, after all.

Now before you think we forgot all about them, it’s time to talk about potatoes again. I wanted to learn about the process of harvesting them and how it’s different from other crops. I decided to talk to Mena Snyder, an old friend and coworker who has spent years farming with GRuB. She explained that “you have to wait until the actual plant dies” before digging down 4-8 inches below the plant to harvest the potatoes themselves. It’s also important to note that the potato isn’t just the roots of the potato plant; it’s a tuber. Therefore, if you create a raised mound of dirt during the growing process, this gives the potatoes more room to grow and you can expect a greater yield. Mena also suggests trying to eat only organic pesticide-free potatoes, because in non-organic farming, potatoes are “sprayed once more before they’re sold.” If for some reason you needed more motivation to buy delicious local produce…there you go!

         You’ve learned what potatoes are; you’ve learned how they’re grown and who grows them. Make sure and read our fall issue to find out what happens when we take Ozette Potatoes from Rising River farm to a meal at Our Table restaurant in Olympia. Will they survive their epic journey? Pick up the next issue of Living Local this fall to find out!




Part 3 – Enjoying those potatoes for dinner

Ozettes on Our Table

By Eric Belgau

If you’ve followed our series on Ozette Potatoes from seed to table, you know that these are a unique local treasure.  Most potatoes were collected from Peru and the surrounding areas by Spanish explorers and brought back to Europe, where they became a staple.  Then European settlers brought them to North America from Europe.  The Ozette, however, came right up the coast from the Andes, where it was planted in a Spanish garden on the Olympic Peninsula.  When the Spaniards abandoned the settlement, the Makah Nation kept cultivating the potato, and we inherit it directly from them, meaning that it bypassed European cultivation (and taste selection) entirely.

Perhaps as a result, these robust fingerlings are more flavorful than mainstream potato varieties, something we learned when we prepared them at home.  (Our Ozettes came from our fledgling garden and were smaller than Ozettes normally seem to be; we harvested them in mid-October.)

Under no circumstances should an article with my name in the by-line ever (and I mean ever) contain a recipe.  Even if I were to copy one straight from “Betty Crocker’s Sure Winners, Even if You’re an Idiot,” by the time the words had flowed through my fingers there’d be something wrong with it.  So for this article, we prepared Ozettes three different ways, and I observed how the Ozette’s unique taste profile played in each preparation.

For the 99.9% of you who are perfectly capable of following a recipe, you canfind my inspiration in Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste.  There’s also a bevy of information there for anyone interested in learning more about the potato.  That way, you can offer up interesting tidbits to your friends and family while they’re eating the dish you’ve prepared.


Preparation 1:  Potato-Leek Soup

The Ark of Taste describes the Ozette’s flavor as “earthy, nutty, and rich,” a profile we thought would make a fabulous potato-leek soup.  The Ark of Taste cookbook doesn’t include an Ozette-specific soup recipe, but we were undeterred.  We followed our own:  boil potatoes and leeks, put them in the VitaMix, puree them with spices and other stuff, and pour it in a bowl.

The Process:  I prefer to peel potatoes before making a soup (everybody’s got a thing), and this was a challenge with the Ozettes.  They have a lot of eyes, and I started feeling as though I was losing too much potato.  I ended up leaving the skins on.  Because we’d read about the flavor, we cut the salt we normally use in half to taste more of it.

The Result:  The blender easily took care of the thin skins, so it didn’t matter that I hadn’t peeled them, and the promised flavor came through.  We were tempted to add some of the salt back in, but adding pepper instead seemed to bring the flavor out even more.

Preparation 2:  Hasselback

This recipe comes straight from the Ark of Taste.  At first, I thought a Hasselback preparation meant getting to the Super Bowl and then losing because of bad officiating.  But no, Hasselback potatoes are cut in half, then each half is scored along the back in an accordion shape.  This allows all the delicious stuff you put on top of them to get down into the cracks, and baking them creates crispy edges.

The Process:  As I mentioned above, the Ozettes that came out of our garden were small, so it was a challenge to cut them lengthwise and to score them into an accordion shape.  I think it might also be a challenge with normal-sized Ozettes.  My wife suggests that some of our readers might have fingers, rather than ten thumbs, and might not have so much trouble.

The Result:  My two kids (ages 7 and 9) are just waking up to the wonders of potatoes, but there was no hesitation with this preparation.  The rich potato flavor shone through, creating a robust foundation for all the oil and spices.

Preparation 3:  Fork-Smashed

In addition to the flavor, I learned quickly that Ozettes are known for their high starch content and creaminess, making them easy to mash.  We followed the cooking instructions for the Ark of Taste:  cook the potatoes in water, pat them dry, place them on a baking sheet, smash them with a fork, spice them, and roast them until everything’s mixed together.  Instead of following the seasoning instructions, I let the kids season their own.

The Process:  This is a very simple preparation, and the Ozettes didn’t present any challenges.  They did live up to their reputation for creaminess and ease of smashing:  even the kids had no trouble smashing them with a fork.

The Result:  Each of us ended up with a completely different dish.  The kids added more spices to theirs, but the flavor of the potatoes was enough to support it even for an adult palate.  They also used butter:  while it’s true that the Ozettes are fine without it, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit they’re better with it.