Late August brings the beginning of potato harvest in Wisconsin.  Potatoes are mostly planted in late April to early May and need five to six month to fully mature .  You received ‘new potatoes’, fresh dug immature potatoes, early in the season which is strictly a CSA member treat (or if you grow your own); you will not see those in any grocery.   Potatoes do store well so you also got them in your early season CSA deliveries, those potatoes were from last year’s harvest.  But since the “real” potato harvest has happened, you are now getting a bounty of this season’s harvest.

The main harvest involves a fair bit of equipment.  We use a Scottish built 2 row harvester; which digs the potatoes, shakes the dirt from them, pulls out the weeds and remaining potato vines, and deposits the potatoes into a potato wagon.  Four people ride on a picking table in the rear of the machine; they pick out bad potatoes and dirt that gets through the machine.  Our setup is a miniature version of what you would see if you traveled in the central sands area of the State this time of year (Stevens Point area).  Their machines harvest 16 rows at a time.  But then they are harvesting hundreds of acres and we are harvesting six acres.  The potatoes are then deposited into 1,000 lb. bulk bins and transported to our potato cooler at the farm.  The bins are stacked four high and the temperature and humidity is controlled.  Later the potatoes are sized and once again culled for bad potatoes.  Before they are bagged for you, they are washed and once again culled for bad potatoes; so if you get a bad potato from us it wasn’t because we didn’t try to get rid of it.

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Besides growing potatoes for you, we also grow seed potatoes that we sell to other organic growers in the Midwest.  In fact, we are the only organic certified seed grower in the Midwest.  Certified seed potato growers are regulated under the State Seed Potato law.  There are certain production and storage practices that must be met to be able to sell the potato as Certified Seed.  Seed growers in Wisconsin have the fields inspected twice during the growing season.  If the field is new to seed production, it is inspected during the harvest.  The seed is then inspected in storage.  All potatoes planted to produce seed must meet strict standards; this is called a “foundation seed” standard.  Every “lot” of seed is monitored separately; a “lot” being separate varieties and a variety may be several lots if it was first planted in different years.  Samples of all lots are grown out in Florida in the winter to test for disease.  Fees are charged for all these activities to pay for all the State’s costs.

There are regulations that can apply to all potato growers, such as the ability of the State to order the destruction of your crop if it is contaminated with Late Blight, famously known for the Irish famine of the 1800’s.   There are also industry “self” regulation standards.  These standards are related to size of the potato, visual appearance and processing traits.  Interestingly to us, there is no standard for eating quality; our primary concern is the eating experience; big, small, round, square…who cares, is it good?  The number one consumed potato, the commercial Russet, is the worst tasting of all potatoes; we do not grow those varieties.  The commercial potato growers I know compare its eating quality to cardboard.

The difference between a Certified Seed Potato and other potatoes is the level of potato disease organisms in the potato, primarily viral diseases.  Potatoes are produced by cutting up a potato into 2 ounce pieces and planting it; these are called seed pieces.  All potatoes will build up their level of disease as they are replanted year after year.  The entire purpose of a Certified Seed Potato is to have no or extremely low disease in the seed piece.  A potato seed piece with a high level of disease will have a lower yield and will be a source of disease inoculum for other potatoes.  Many diseases are spread by insects feeding on one potato plant and then moving to the next.  So the basic strategy is: no inoculum in your seed means no disease in the potatoes you harvest.  Historically, the single biggest improvement in potato yield came with the creation of the concept of Certified Seed.  Again, if the Irish had certified seed, there would be a lot more people living in Ireland today.

We also sell potatoes to Willy Street Coop throughout the fall and have for many years now.

The yield on the six acres of potatoes we grow varies between 120,000 to 200,000 lbs. of potatoes.  The yield changes significantly with the weather.  Two years ago was a great year for all the growers in the State, we had our best crop ever by far.  This year many of the growers will have a bad year because of weather, our year is a little below average.   We grow 14 different varieties, some of which are only grown because our seed customers ask us to.  Of these varieties, we give you variety as well as what we think is the best eating.

David