Bodega Red Potatoes, a local heirloom once on the brink of extinction, will be commercially available to the public this month for what is likely the first time in decades, if not more than a century.
“The potato is available. Now that we are going to be expanding the coverage, there will be substantially more seed potatoes available to farmers for next year. Local restaurants that care about using local ingredients should ask about the potato,” said Elissa Rubin-Mahon, who helped spearhead the potato’s return. “That to me is important. Because what we want to do is we want it to become a viable agricultural product in the area and in our region, and it’s not going to happen unless people eat it and buy it.”
Local farms in the north and West County — including Bernier Farms, HomeFarm, Front Porch Farm, DaVero, Tierra Vegetables, Strong Arm Farm, and First Light Farm — purchased Bodega Red seed potato through Slow Food Sonoma County North back in March. Since then, potato plants have flourished in local fields.
“We put 100 pounds in ... and so far it looks really good,” said Nathan Boone, co-owner of First Light Farm. “The seed is very vigorous, the plants are vigorous. We cut the seed pretty big so we’d be sure to have healthy plants. We look at yield and we look at how it stores, and of course how it tastes.”
Boone noted that he hopes to have between 500 and 1,000 pounds for sale this October and November and will likely sell most of it to other farmers and gardeners for seed and keep some if it as seed for next year if it performs well in his fields.
Wayne James of Tierra Vegetables purchased 20 pounds of seed potato and had a similar plan.
“I’m basically growing my own seed. I need 100 to 200 pounds of seed to plant a reasonable amount. They look really good ... they seem very healthy and vigorous,” James said. “I planted them late, I’m going to harvest them late. I want to save them all the way through until next spring so I want to late-harvest the seed.”
James noted that he might have just a few potatoes for sale on a select basis.
“I may have a very, very, very few. I’m going to eat a couple and see how they taste, I may offer them to a few customers to see how they like them,” he said.
Heidi Hermann of Strong Arm Farm hopes to bring Bodega Red Potatoes to the Healdsburg Farmers Market in August.
“We’re growing them, about 50 seeds ... and they’re looking great, really strong plants. They’re just about to bloom, I think we’ll harvest mid-August, but they’ll tell us. They seem more vigorous than other varieties we chose,” Hermann said.
Bernier Farms plans to harvest some Bodega Red potatoes as new potatoes in July, and will be selling them at the Healdsburg and Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers markets as well as to local restaurants.
Having Bodega Red Potatoes available for purchase at local farmers markets and restaurants would have been impossible just a few years ago. The Sonoma County heirloom crop had all but disappeared when five potatoes were donated anonymously to the director of the Bodega Land Trust.
The Bodega Red has a long history in coastal Sonoma County.
“Local legends alternately say that a South American sailor jumped ship with the potato and began to grow it. Another states that it came sewn into the hem of a soon-to-be Latin American bride of a Bodega Bay landowner. However it arrived, the potato flourished,” wrote Slow Food member Rubin-Mahon in a paper summarizing the history of the potato.
Rubin-Mahon’s research suggests that Sonoma County’s first cash crop was potatoes — and that, even more surprisingly, the county grew the most potatoes in all of California in the 1850s. She estimates that 60,000 sacks were shipped from Bodega Bay to San Francisco annually, feeding San Franciscans and forty-niners as far afield as the Sierra Nevada mountains.
But when Rubin-Mahon put feelers out into the local community to try to find someone still growing these heritage potatoes, she hit roadblocks.
“I went into the phone book and found who the old families were, and I talked to them about the potato. Nobody would come forward with anything. ... I think it was basically because I was considered a foreigner as far as the old families were concerned,” Rubin-Mahon said.
But another potato crusader, Abigail Meyers, had better luck.
“A friend of mine through Slow Food knew Abigail Meyers, who was then the director of Bodega Land Trust ... She put the word out and a family member came forward anonymously because the family really did not want to release the potato,” Rubin-Mahon recalled.
That anonymous donor provided five small potatoes, about the size of ones pinky finger. Meyers grew them out to create more. Eventually, the potatoes made their way to a seed company, Pure Potato, which was able to produce a virus-free strain in quantity for local farmers — the start for this year’s inaugural commercial harvest, the fruits (or, more accurately, tubers) of which will be available to local consumers this month.