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The Potato – Then and now

These days, it must be tough being a potato.

April 22, 2008  By Marg Land

These days, it must be tough being
a potato. For centuries, you were considered a staple food product. And
then, suddenly, in the blink of an eye, you are black-balled from menus.

These days, it must be tough being a potato. For centuries, you were considered a staple food product. And then, suddenly, in the blink of an eye, you are black-balled from menus.

But take heart potato producers – the honourable tuber is no stranger to controversy and public hysteria. And yet it has continued to survive and thrive.


Archaeologists have found the remains of potatoes dating back as far as the 5th Century B.C. The Incas grew spuds, ate them and even worshipped them. Hundreds of years later, in the 16th Century A.D., the Spanish were introduced to the potato, considering it a kind of truffle. Soon, the spud became a staple for Spanish explorers; sailors who ate the vegetable didn’t suffer from scurvy.

The potato soon spread throughout Europe, receiving mixed reviews. In France, the plant was considered evil and was accused of causing leprosy, sterility, syphilis and even rampant sexuality. The French eventually passed a law forbidding its cultivation.

By the late 1500s, the spud had found its way to Ireland. An Irish legend says that ships from Spain were shipwrecked along the shore of Ireland, thus introducing the potato to the island. According to more reliable sources, explorer Sir Walter Raleigh planted some of the tubers on his Irish estate near Cork. He is also rumoured to have presented the plant to Queen Elizabeth I. The royal cooks were unsure what to do with it so they threw away the lumpy tubers and cooked up the highly poisonous leaves and stems. Everyone became deathly ill and potatoes were banned from being served at court.

While spuds were introduced to the U.S. several times in the 1600s, they didn’t really catch on until the early 1700s, first planted in large acreages in New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, a French chemist and botanist did some in-depth study of the potato. He managed to convince Louis XVI to encourage the cultivation of spuds. He was granted 100 acres to produce potatoes on. The property was also heavily guarded. The surrounding farmers were curious about the protection, believing anything that heavily guarded must be important. The local people were able to steal some of the tubers and plant them on their own farms, thus spreading potato production across France.

In the mid-1800s came Ireland’s Great Potato Famine, caused by repeated years of late blight infection. The potato had become such a staple of Ireland, the country’s citizens had no idea how to cook anything else.

By the late 1800s, potatoes finally became a staple food in the U.S. Idaho’s spud industry finally took off in 1872 with the discovery of the Russet Burbank, a disease resistant variety that was also introduced to Ireland.

In the 1900s, the potato became so common and plentiful in Western diets that it was taken for granted. That is, until now. In the early 2000s, many have turned their backs on the vegetable in favour of low-carb diets. This has led to plummeting spud prices and oversupply (see article on page 6).

It has also led to the development of some low-carb varieties. In the January 2005 issue of Fruit & Vegetable Magazine, I reported on a group of Florida farmers looking forward to marketing a low-carb spud south of the border. This led to a phone call from Wayne Rempel, president of Kroeker Farms near Winkler, Manitoba. Wayne let me know that Kroeker has been growing the HZPC-developed potato variety, known as Adora here in Canada, for the past five years, serving the Mexican market.

I’ve also discovered that Timber River Eco Farms, located near the Northumberland Strait and the Confederation Bridge to P.E.I., has also been producing both Adora and Fabula, another low-carb spud, under the brand label Eco-Spuds.

Thanks for letting me know about these Canadian connections. I appreciate hearing about what Canadian producers are doing. Keep the good news coming.

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