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The potato gets its due as an Alaska vegetable

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Posted: Saturday, October 6, 2012 11:46 pm | Updated: 1:27 pm, Wed Apr 10, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — It’s official; Alaskans love their potatoes.

This wasn’t proven by a scientific survey but by casual and fun “tater tastings” held by local farmer Kurt Wold of Pingo Farm at various farmers markets and a local food shop.

Inspired by the Chefs at the Market program sponsored by Alaska Grown this summer, Wold decided the community needed a taste of locally grown spuds. “This is the opposite of the Potato Extravaganza,” he said, explaining the Festival Fairbanks annual fundraiser that incorporates potatoes into a gourmet meal. His goal was to let the potatoes speak for themselves.

This meant the tasters got to try boiled and fried varieties of potatoes sans condiments; not even salt and pepper were supplied and certainly not ketchup.

The event at Homegrown Market on Sept. 25 proved to be of great interest to the store’s customers. “We like potatoes,” declared Sherry Gates. Her husband, Gary Gates, said they are interested in raising food from heirloom seeds and wanted to see what kind of potatoes they could grow in the Interior. “If ever there is a shortage in the supply we should have a garden,” Gary said. “Potatoes are appealing because they are something you can store.”

Wold grows 21 varieties of organic seed potatoes in the Goldstream Valley, and he set up tastings for all of them for his first event at his home. It proved a bit overwhelming so he pared it down to 10 for the public offerings: French Fingerling, Granola, Huckleberry, La Ratte, German Butterball, Kerr’s Pink, Swede Fingerling, Yukon Gold and Rose Finn Apple. To compare to “Outside” potatoes, one large Norkotah was included in the mix.

As to how the rankings worked, it was very simple. Wold just listened to what people had to say. “I had an idea for a rating system, but I didn’t want to pull out all the guns,” he said. At the farmers markets, he observed people were willing to try only two or three potatoes, but at Homegrown customers such as the Gateses hung out for a while, trying all that he offered.

“No one says bad things so that’s good,” Wold said. “The Fingerlings are popular and fried beats boiled.”

Wold’s intention was to expand horizons about the thousands of varieties of potatoes that exist and the hundreds that can be grown here. But he cautioned, “Just because it grows well for me doesn’t mean it will for someone else.”

Location is a key element to successfully growing spuds, as is attention. “The more love you can give them the better they will be,” he said, which means weeding, watering and making sure the soil has enough phosphorus. (He uses chicken manure as fertilizer.)

Most importantly, growers must start with good seeds, Wold said. “You should have certified seed potatoes. If you just get them at the store and they grew in a far different environment you could put something in the garden that you can’t get rid of. You’ll get much better potatoes if you buy local seed.”

On an encouraging note, he said pretty much anyone can grow potatoes.

It’s all right to create your own seed potatoes by saving some from one year to the next. “Potatoes are all clones,” Wold said. “If there are no scabs you can use them for seed the next year.”

Pinned down for his own favorites, Wold chose the Huckleberry for boiling and the Fingerlings for frying.

He is considering hosting the “Tater Tastings” annually. “With the turnover in people here, you are never going to run out of people who are clueless on potatoes,” he said.

This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at ntarnai@alaska.edu.

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