Wisconsin Growers, Diners Embrace Potato Diversity

Published online: Aug 19, 2019 Articles, Seed Potatoes Jennifer Rude Klett
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Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Wisconsin farmer Jesse Perkins really knows his spuds. He could even be called a potato specialist as one of only a dozen organic seed potato farmers in the country, and the only one in Wisconsin.

When his parents, David and Barbara Perkins, retired their Community Supported Agriculture last year from their Vermont Valley Community Farm, oldest son Jesse decided to dig into his area of expertise.

It seems Perkins has had an eye on potatoes for quite some time.

“They are the crop I spent the most time with and was the most knowledgeable about,” he said. “They became my main interest because I spent the most time with them and was the most responsible for them.”

Now Vermont Valley, no longer a CSA after 24 years, focuses solely on seed potatoes under Perkins’ leadership, with help from his dad.

Seed potatoes are used to grow new potato plants, and Vermont Valley supplies seed potatoes to hundreds of organic farms in Wisconsin, the Upper Midwest and a few scattered throughout the country. The farm is certified by the Midwest Organic Services Association and the State of Wisconsin Seed Potato Program, which strives to ensure healthy seed pieces.

Vermont Valley sells seed potatoes to both farms and individual gardeners from its farm in the Town of Vermont, Dane County, and from its website, organicpotatoseed.com. Orders range from a modest 5 pounds all the way up to 9,000 pounds.

As any backyard gardener knows, growing potatoes is tricky ... and organic potatoes are even trickier.

Outstanding in his field of organic potatoes, Perkins said he’s never really considered what he does as unique. Raising potatoes is just “normal” for him.

“It’s what I do,” he said.

And yes, Perkins had a Mr. Potato Head toy growing up, but he admits that it wasn’t his favorite toy at the time.

Magic Molly and More

If you’ve enjoyed seasonal organic spuds from a local farm or farmers market, chances are they could be traced back to Vermont Valley.

For example, the Town of Delafield’s Gwenyn Hill Farm sells potatoes through CSA subscriptions or at the Brookfield Farmers Market on Saturday mornings. Gwenyn Hill's potatoes are grown from seed potatoes obtained from Vermont Valley.

The head gardener at Gwenyn Hill, Laurel Blomquist, said the farm's potato season just began and will continue through the first week of November.

“We have started harvesting the first potato of the season, Red Endeavor,” Blomquist said. “We receive the seed in April. Potato seeds are actually just potatoes on the verge of producing a lot of eyes. We cut each potato into two to three pieces with at least one eye in each piece. We cure them for a day or two to dry the cut edges.”

Gwenyn Hill grows nine potato varieties with interesting names such as Red Endeavor, Superior, Peter Wilcox, Oneida Gold, Adirondack Red, Kennebec (Blomquist’s favorite), French Fingerling, Austrian Crescent and Magic Molly, all from seed potatoes from Vermont Valley.

Vermont Valley sells 17 varieties, including Adirondack Blue, Carola, Dark Red Norland, German Butterball, Goldrush Russet, Red Gold, Red Prairie and Yukon Gold. Some have completely sold out to farms and gardeners earlier in the year.

Perkins’ personal favorite is Peter Wilcox, a newish variety bred for unique color with higher carotenoid and vitamin C content. Other names for it include purple sun and blue gold.

“It has purple skin and yellow flesh,” he said. “I like potatoes cooked almost any way, but my favorite thing to make is hash browns. I shred the potatoes with a cheese grater and fry them on the stove.”

Perkins said he doesn’t have a recipe for his hash browns, but he recommended simply squeezing out excess water after shredding, then frying them in a cast-iron pan with olive oil with salt and pepper until nicely browned.

Beloved Taters

Perkins is hardly alone in relishing potatoes.

Potatoes are a universally beloved comfort food ... practically the opposite of trendy, sort of an anti-kale. A humble but satisfying side dish or even a main course, the potato is incredibly versatile to prepare.

And, potatoes are good for you as long as you don’t smother them with high-calorie toppings or opt for fries and chips, according to Amy Giffin, dietitian and food blogger at eatrightcooktonight.com.

“Unfortunately, potatoes have gotten a bad rap due to how they’re most commonly prepared,” said Giffin, a diabetes educator at Advocate Aurora Healthcare. “When we process potatoes by deep-frying in oil to turn into French fries or potato chips, or when we load up our mashed or baked potatoes with condiments such as butter, cheese or bacon, we end up turning these nutritional spuds into duds.”

Nutritionally, the good news about potatoes is they’re high in fiber, potassium and vitamins B6 and C. Giffin recommends eating the skins to get all the beneficial nutrients.

“The nutrition profile of all white potatoes (russet, yellow, white, red, purple/blue, fingerling and petite) is relatively similar. One large white potato has nine grams of fiber (with skin), which is important for digestion and helping to lower our cholesterol. Potatoes are also a good source of potassium, which is important for managing our blood pressure,” she said.

“Potatoes are also a surprisingly good source of vitamin C, an antioxidant that helps with wound healing.”

The potential bad news about starchy potatoes for those watching their blood sugar is that they have a large amount of carbohydrates, about 30 grams per cup.

“Carbohydrates break down most readily into glucose,” she explained. “However, compared to other starchy foods like pasta or rice, potatoes have less carbohydrates and more fiber per cup, which can be a good substitution.”

Overall, Giffin gives potatoes a thumbs up.

“Continue to enjoy whole home-cooked potatoes along with a good source of protein and a multitude of other non-starchy vegetables for the best overall health benefits. Skip the French fries and potato chips,” she recommended.

Wisconsin a Big Potato Producer

Potatoes are a big deal in Wisconsin. Customarily renowned for its dairy, malt beverages and cranberries, the state has been a leader in growing potatoes as well.

In terms of potato production, Wisconsin consistently ranks third in the country behind Idaho and Washington, and No. 1 among states east of the Mississippi River, according to the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growing Association, based in Antigo.

The state’s potato production is valued at well over $300 million, grown on 71,000 acres in 2018, according to Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.

Tubers are grown all over Wisconsin but dominate in the central region of the state. Most are conventionally grown, not organic.

Both minor and major difficulties can beset potato growers, especially organic ones, which makes starting with clean healthy seed potatoes all the more essential.

At certified-organic Gwenyn Hill, Blomquist said potential problems with potatoes can include late blight, a major culprit in the infamous 1840s Irish Potato Famine, and destructive Colorado potato beetles.

With seed potatoes at Vermont Valley, Perkins said the most-troublesome potato varieties to grow are the ones that need to be in the ground and exposed to potential problems for a lengthy period of time.

“Since we are organic, the trickiest varieties to grow are the long-season varieties like Goldrush Russet and Austrian Crescent. In order for them to size up, we need to keep them for a long time. There are some insects that are very difficult to control organically, making the long-season varieties difficult,” he said.

Dietitian Giffin offered this advice for home cooks when considering organic vs. non-organic potatoes.

“Potatoes are currently on the Environmental Working Group’s dirty dozen list. Therefore, buying organic could be a good idea if you are concerned about pesticides.

“However, if organic is out of your budget, just make sure to give your potatoes a good rinse and scrub prior to consuming, especially if you’re eating the skin, which you should,” she said.