Different Stuff

Kenosha Potato Project keeps potatoes diverse

Published online: Feb 05, 2018 Articles Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This article appears in the February 2018 issue of Potato Grower.

Curzio Caravati is not a big-time commercial farmer. He doesn’t pretend to be. Nor, he says, is he a scientist. What feels he is, though, is someone with something to offer. He is, in his own words, “the biggest unpaid potato promoter in America.”

Raised in Switzerland by Italian-born parents, Caravati grew up far removed from production agriculture. As a young adult, he was a successful sports equipment salesman, working for American companies such as Nike and Riddell, which led him to move to the U.S. in 1990. Five years later was the start of his farming career.

“I had zero experience in food or farming,” he says. “Even now, everything I do, I do for educational purposes.”

Caravati grows his crops on just three acres off Highway 32 in Kenosha, Wis., a short walk from the shores of Lake Michigan. Among his crops are micro-plots of dozens of heirloom potato and garlic varieties, as well as onions and fruit trees. He is a founding member of the Kenosha Harbor Market, one of the biggest farmers’ markets in the country. Caravati believes farmers’ market trends are bellwethers of the direction the industry will take in the next several years. What he foretells is continued growth of the specialty potato market, and a boom in urban agriculture.  

Caravati is a member of Seed Savers Exchange, a large non-profit based in Iowa and dedicated to preserving seed from thousands of heirloom varieties of dozens of food crops. He spearheads the Kenosha Potato Project, which gathers growers large and (mostly) small from around the world to discuss, promote and protect little-known potato varieties. The project currently lists over 400 varieties, most of which Caravati himself grows on his own plot. The vast majority of them are heirloom and exotic varieties.  

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many colored varieties were abandoned in deference to russet and white strains. As a result, while germplasm exists of many of those heirlooms, the supply isn’t completely healthy and market-viable.

“One of my goals,” Caravati says, “is to make sure all these varieties that people have saved are healthy and available, and that the ones we have in vitro can be brought to market whenever the market demands it.” 

Caravati bemoans the dearth of funds that makes potato breeders themselves a rare breed. Nevertheless, that shortage is a cold, hard fact of the industry. Caravati’s solution?

“The bottom line is, I’m trying to inspire more people to become hobby breeders,” he says. “I believe urban agriculture will become more important looking into the future. A big part of my research is to find varieties that will yield more vertically than horizontally. It’s unconventional, and it’s a small section of the market, but I think it will continue to grow.”

The Kenosha Potato Project group on Facebook has over 2,700 members, a solid indication that there is significant interest in this type of work and individual research. Caravati firmly believes he and others like him will play a vital role in filling in the cracks and being ready with solutions when the larger industry needs them.   

“Perhaps there is a new market that is developing and getting stronger, and the industry may have some interest,” he says. “Of course, a grower would have to dedicate a small piece of a field to that. But those potatoes come in at much higher prices than the current standard varieties—it’s just matter of expanding that market.

“I doubt you will find anybody in America who knows as much as I do about heirloom potatoes,” Caravati concludes with a wry chuckle. “I have been eating, digesting and studying heirloom potatoes for many years. I know them well.”