Friday, 19 November 2010
A Visit to Pinehaven Farm
The same day we went to Ontario Water Buffalo, we also stopped in at Pinehaven Farm, just outside of Millbrook. I had heard about John Wood, who - I had read - grows 40 kinds of potatoes at Pinehaven Farm. As it turns out, that piece of information is outdated. He actually grew 56 kinds of potatoes this year. You didn't even know there were 56 kinds, did you? I suspect most people could name Yukon Gold, and maybe Russet Burbanks (the classic baking potato). After that, they tend to be sold as "red" (skins) or "white" (beige skins).
That's pretty much what most people know, but there's a lot more to potatoes than that. While they are all recognizable as potatoes, there are distinct differences in flavour, colour and texture in different potatoes. Texture is particularly important as it has the most effect on the cooking technique chose for each kind.
From the farmers point of view there may be reasons to grow particular varieties of potatoes for other reasons besides looks and flavour; disease resistance, insect resistance, keeping qualities, the length of the growing season or ease of harvesting being the main things to consider.
John Wood is a 4th generation farmer, the third to farm this particular spot. He grows other vegetables as well; squash and pumpkins, beets, carrots, beans and cucumbers. Potatoes are obviously his main interest though, and what's mainly available at this time of year.
I won't even try to list all the potatoes he showed us, but I'll mention a few that sounded interesting to me: Irish Cobbler, a floury heirloom; MacIntosh Black, very dark; Red Thumb, a strong pink fingerling; Purple Majesty; a strongly purple fleshed potato; Pink Fir-Apple; an heirloom fingerling; River John Blue*, another blue from Nova Scotia; Mountain Rose, a good pink. Yes, I like the colourful ones! But he also has the old stand-bys like Norland, Sebago, Kennbec, Red Cheiftan and Viking. And, well, many others, old and new.
The potatoes are stored in a number of different containers. Most are in large wooden crates, although the ones he has in smaller quantities are in cardboard boxes or bushel baskets. Large nylon bags are also used. The room is kept pretty dim, and well ventilated. Potatoes keep best at about 7°C, and for the first few weeks they are stored give off a fair bit of moisture, which must be dispersed.
The potatoes are stored unwashed. They keep better that way. John sorts out the damaged or scabby ones as he sells the potatoes. He and his mother Marg eat the best of the seconds, and the remainder get fed to his cows. This has to be done with caution; cows love potatoes, but they can choke on them, and there is no giving a Heimlich maneuvre to a cow.
John rummages through his boxes of potatoes to show us particular varieties.
These ones are La Ratte, a traditional French fingerling variety. They are firm and waxy, with pale yellow flesh and are described as having a nutty flavour. They're pretty glamourous, for potatoes.
These are Peruvian Purple, another fingerling, and another heirloom potato. They are purple right through. John says he is selling more purple potatoes as they are becoming very popular.
Oh dear, which ones are these? I think they might be Annabelle, a yellow waxy potato, with a firm texture and an earthy flavour. But they could be Selma, or maybe Gala. Hmm. John would know - he knew all his potatoes by sight.
On Saturdays John loads up this trailer and goes to the Peterborough Farmers Market.
This piece of equipment is used to harvest the early varieties of potatoes, and all the fingerlings. They are small enough that they would fall through the chains of the bigger digger and be lost. The earliest potatoes are harvested at the end of June.
Pinehaven Farm has sandy, slightly acid soil, much like ours. Apparently, potatoes like that. We've certainly done better with potatoes than with some other vegetables. Potatoes are actually pretty tolerant of different conditions but the light soil means that the potatoes tend to be large and well-shaped.
There's the bigger digger, which will harvest several rows of potatoes at once, provided the potatoes are large enough. The later potatoes are harvested through to the beginning of November, in general.
The red bin-piler is basically a large conveyor belt, used to pile the potatoes in the wooden bins. Potato processing equipment (like an awful lot of farm equipment) is wildly expensive, and as a small family farm John is limited in what he can get.
For example, he has some trouble with hollow heart in some of his potatoes. Yukon Gold is particularly prone to get it. It just means that there's a hole in the middle of the potato, caused by uneven watering as it formed, or possibly a boron deficiency. There's no real problem with this, it's just unsightly as it may turn a little brown. If you get a potato like this, just trim around it a bit if it's discoloured. There is a machine to detect hollow heart in potatoes, but it costs about a million dollars. Yep, a million dollars. If it helps keep small farmers in the potato business, I'm prepared to do a little trimming, myself.
The fields look pretty bare at the moment, and mostly they are, although John is harvesting a few last potatoes still. This year is the latest he has ever had potatoes in the ground, and it was also the earliest he has ever planted potatoes in the spring. He starts early, and harvests early, because new (not fully formed) potatoes get a premium price in the summer. He also plants potatoes a lot later then we ever have. This means they get harvested as late as possible. If you are a specialty potato grower, freshness is important. I guess it also means that while he stores potatoes to sell into the winter, he doesn't have an enormous glut of them.
John grows about 25 acres of potatoes. He moves his crops around from year to year. He doesn't grow organically, but he takes a fairly philosophical view of the problems that affect potatoes. We discussed scab, white grubs and Colorado potato beetles. He says all these things are cyclical. By moving potatoes around and having a lot of different varieties, he knows he will always have some problems, but he will also always have some that do just fine.
It was a beautiful day, but you can tell it's November by the way the sun drops like a hot stone around 4:30. Time to go home and have some supper - how about some nice potatoes! (And yes, I did get quite a few from John, so expect some potato recipes in the next little while - although I also plan to cook most of them fairly simply, to assess them.)
*The name rang a bell when John mentioned it, but I didn't place it for a while. River John is in Nova Scotia, in Pictou county, home of me ancestors or at least some of them. Okay, gotta try these.