Potatoes: then and now

Jerry Vitalis

A few years ago, I was asked to speak in Center City as the city prepared to replace the old potato starch factory with a new senior housing. I also conducted a class on raising potatoes as a part of our spring series last year. I was surprised and encouraged on the interest of raising potatoes.
Some gardeners had never planted potatoes and didn’t know the first thing about them, but they were willing to learn. Some hadn’t raised them for many years, but with diet and concerns about commercial production, wanted to raise potatoes again.
As popular as the potato is, it’s hard to believe that it got off to such a rough start. In the 16th Century, it was banned in parts of France, because it was thought to cause leprosy. The clergy of Europe spread rumors that the potato was the forbidden fruit that grew in the Garden of Eden.
Two hundred years later, peasants from Ireland to Siberia adopted it as part of their basic diet, making it the first crop in the world to become a food staple outside its native region. One of the problems in Ireland was they had only one variety of potato. When potato blight invaded the crop, it was the main reason for the famine in Ireland.
There are numerous accounts and claims as to when and how the potato came to the country. One story is that the potato came here as early as 1633, but was considered a third-rate foodstuff, so few paid much attention to it. Another account states that potatoes arrived in the United States from Europe in 1719, traveling with an Irish family who settled in New Hampshire.
By the middle of the 19th Century, American gardeners had more than 70 different kinds of potatoes, and now there are several hundred varieties across the United States. Potatoes are the most important crop in Minnesota and the fourth most important crop in the world after rice, wheat, and corn. Americans eat an average of 143 pounds of potatoes per person, with 63 percent being processed as fries, flakes, mashed, starch or flour.
When I did some research on potatoes I counted up to 34 recommended varieties for our area. The University of Minnesota has developed 17 varieties four our area but the only potato I recognized was the Anoka Variety. This is very unusual because as in apples, most of the recommended varieties for this area were developed by the U of M.
Most gardeners who raise potatoes have two plantings per year. The first planting is early spring when the ground first warms up. These are boiling potatoes that are eaten with the skin remaining on the potato. This potato is not used for baking. These varieties include Anoka, Dark Red Norland, Norland, Red Norland and Pontiac.
There are many varieties of late or baking potatoes. Some of the more popular varieties include Kennebec, Russet Burbank and Yukon Gold.
There are several diseases that could affect potatoes, but seldom do. If gardeners keep potatoes away from tomatoes, (which are in the same family), and plant them in a sunny, well-drained area, with good air movement, they should avoid blight. Rotating crops should help control the Colorado potato beetle, but not always.
Potato bugs are very difficult to control. They spend the winter as adults. In the spring, they lay a batch of bright orange eggs on any plant in the area. They hatch into reddish hump-backed larvae. Both adults and larva feed on potato leaves. There are usually two generations of these pests each year. The different stages overlap and all forms of the potato beetle may be seen on potatoes at any given time. Even with a small amount of defoliation, potatoes may put energy into the leaves instead of the tubers.
Pick and remove beetles and the eggs and destroy them. The most commonly used insecticide is carbaryle (sold as Sevin). However, many potato bugs are resistant to Sevin. Bacillus thuringiensis (BT) is a bacterial insecticide with very low toxicity, and potato bugs haven’t developed resistance to it. Because egg-hatching can be prolonged and because BT lasts only a few days, apply it every three or four days.

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