Tater time

Move over dragon. 2012 is actually the year of the potato—at least in Western North Carolina.

“We’ve conducted two different potato trials this year,” says Jeremy DeLisle with Mitchell County’s Cooperative Extension office. One, an organic trial, tested the feasibility of growing 12 different potato varieties organically for specialty markets, restaurants and beyond. The other, a potato-chip trial, took a look at “chipping” varieties recommended to them by the North Carolina State Potato Research Program. “We saw how they would do, how they’d grow here and what the yields were like.”

The verdict? A crispy, crunchy success. “We have a lot of former tobacco farmers in our area,” DeLisle says. “Potatoes fit in with the style of production they’re used to and can utilize a lot of equipment they might already have.” And some of those former growers are counting their chips.

“We’re fortunate because a farmer, Gerald Whitson, has been selling chipping variety samples to the Gourmet Chip Company in Asheville, and a local gentleman, Robert Periot, is working on developing a chip business; he’s been making chips in small batches and letting us try them,” DeLisle says, adding that there is a lot happening in the area in terms of transitional agriculture. “We’re going to move forward with this; it’s all a matter of demand and partnerships with small-business people. But, this year has been the year of the potato.”

Mitchell County’s future plans include focusing on a new aggregation center in Burnsville — TRACTOR (Toe River Aggregation Center Training Organization Regional) — where farmers can bring their product in to wash, grade and store.
That’s exactly what the folks of Madison Farms in Marshall offer. For them, it all started with the humble tater.

“When Cooperative Extensions were being consolidated around the state, we knew we didn’t want to lose Extension in Madison County,” shares Madison Farms’ Aubrey Raper. Simultaneous to that, he notes, was the end of tobacco and the changing interest in local and organic foods. “We thought wouldn’t it be great if we had a facility that could provide sales and distribution for Madison County crops.”

So, the county purchased the property now home to Madison Farms and Extension. When thinking about the one piece of equipment they would start with, they easily settled on a wash/grade line for potatoes.

“Everyone around here grows taters, and everyone stores taters. Potatoes were and have been the area’s anchor crop,” notes Raper. Even though potatoes have played an important role here for years, does he also think 2012 is their year?

“Anyone would tell you, ‘Boy, this was an early year for potatoes.’ Farmers were calling me in early July asking if they could start digging! With all the moisture we’ve had, it’s not a year of small potatoes, but a year of larger potatoes.”

Madison Farms currently has about six farmers supplying them several-thousand bushels of taters, which they in turn sell to Mountain Food Products, an Asheville-based produce distributor providing to area restaurants and other food-service establishments. “Mountain Foods is really our hero,” says Raper. “We have the equipment needed and then the strong relationship with them, which is necessary for us to enter the restaurant trade.”

“Our potato sales are double this year,” shares Anne Lancaster of Mountain Food Products, which she credits both to the early season and also to stocking more varieties. “We’re stocking three different kinds of local potatoes this year: Red (primarily Red Chieftain), Yukon Gold, and Kennebec.” Look for Madison Farms’ and Mountain Food Products’ taters on the menus of Asheville and Hendersonville Appalachian Grown restaurants, including Plant, Laurey’s, the eateries at the Grove Park Inn, Highland Lake Inn, and more.

Especially those Yukon Golds. Raves Raper, “The Yukons this year are gorgeous.”

Whither my taters?

Potatoes are a great storage crop and will stick around restaurant menus and tailgate markets for a while. Lancaster shares that Mountain Foods will provide area restaurants with a local crop through November and hopefully even into the winter months. In addition to those listed here, shop tailgates for varieties including German Butterball, sweet potatoes, and varieties of fingerlings and even purple taters.

The Get Local calendar turns to a fall favorite, apples, this month; cabbage gets the spotlight in area schools. The Get Local focus will return to potatoes for school cafeterias in November.

For more information about Get Local, visit asapconnections.org. To find restaurants serving, growers growing, and tailgates selling local taters — as well as apples — browse ASAP’s online Local Food Guide at appalachiangrown.org. You can also now find U-pick farms and orchards, tailgates, and more close to you via ASAP’s new free app for iPhone and Android. Search for Appalachian Grown through your app store to download.

Storage:
Potatoes are fantastic storage crops, which means that even though September’s Get Local potato month has passed, they’ll still find their way to restaurant menus, groceries and tailgates for a while longer.
Potatoes: Tailgates are for taters: Look for lots of varieties of local potatoes at area tailgate markets now.

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