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Growing Red and Purple Potatoes Organically

By Dale and Darcy Cahill
This article also appears in the September 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A.

While many potato varieties are not suited to organic management, there are just as many that are bred specifically for success in an organic garden. Jim Gerritsen from Aroostook County, Maine, has been growing potatoes with his wife, Megan, for over thirty years on their farm in Bridgewater. In that time, Gerritsen has discovered varieties that not only thrive under organic management but also taste delicious. Once only popular in specialty markets, blue/purple and red potatoes have gained attention in the past ten years for their robust colors, their hardiness and their taste. Maine potato farmers, including Gerritsen, have been growing these colorful and delicious potatoes for years now and have seen both the breeding, growing and marketing of these varieties surge in popularity. Whether grown in a kitchen garden or commercially, these colorful potatoes are easy to grow and are here to stay.

As a farmer, Gerritsen begins with the premise that all potato varieties are flawed. He says, “if you can’t find at least two flaws in a variety, then you are not looking hard enough.” That said, before he commits to selling any variety of his certified organic, certified Maine kitchen or seed potatoes, they undergo a three-year trial period to see if they are tasty enough and hardy enough to grow organically. After thirty years of conducting these trials, a few blue and red varieties have earned their place on his farm.

Colorful Potato Varieties

Caribe potato (purple)

The purple-skin potato with the longest history on Gerritsen’s Wood Prairie Family Farm is a variety called Caribe. Although the commercial market never picked up this variety, over the years Gerritsen’s local customers have come to count on it, and word has spread that it is a tasty, consistent producer that grows reliably in over 48 states.

Caribe is an early potato, ready to harvest in just 70 days. This potato’s early harvest time makes it well suited for an organic garden, as it is ready early enough in the summer to avoid most summertime pests and diseases.

Although the seed was developed in Canada, potato lore says that it originally came from Cuba, where its deep and lustrous purple skin earned it the reputation of being an aphrodisiac. But true to Gerritsen’s theory, it too has a few flaws. One is that when boiled the skin color fades. The only way to maintain their bright, purple shade is to cook them using dry heat.

Adirondak Blue potato

Another potato that has earned its place at Wood Prairie Farm is the Adirondack Blue, bred by Robert Plaisted, Ken Paddock and Walter De Jong at Cornell University in 2003. This variety has both blue skin and blue flesh and retains its color whether baked, boiled or mashed. It is considered an early- to mid-season, medium- to high-yielding variety. Adirondack Blue tubers are mostly oblong with an attractive appearance and intermediate eye depth. The variety also has a short dormancy (time required for sprout emergence).

This colorful potato has been picked up by both specialty and commercial markets, making it a favorite at farmstands, restaurants, high-end grocery stores and large-scale potato chipping companies.Its deep-blue color indicates high levels of antioxidants, a nutritional bonus that adds to its popularity. The Adirondack Blue is often paired with the Adirondack Red, also developed and bred by the Plaisted, Paddock and De Jong team. Both varieties are considered perfect for the beginning gardener as they are a low-maintenance crop needing minimal oversight. An excellent choice for a kitchen garden, the Adirondack Red is equally popular on small and commercial farms.

All Blue potato

All Blue, an heirloom variety developed over a century ago, has also earned a place in Gerritsen’s fields. It scores high in moisture, flavor and color and is grown all around the world. It can be harvested early for its small tubers but will also produce large, cylindrical tubers when allowed to fully mature. It is a drought-resistant variety that is planted first and most often harvested last. Over the last one hundred years, this variety has been frequently renamed, often in relation to its geographical location. Its other names include called Congo Black, British Columbia Blue, Blue of Sweden, Himalayan Black, Russian Blue, Blue Marker, Fenton Blue, River John and many others. This blue potato has clearly earned worldwide approval.

LaJoie Farm

The LaJoie family is another multi-generational potato farming family located in Aroostook County. However, unlike Gerritsen’s ten to twelve acres of potatoes, the LaJoie Growers’ 1300 acres are devoted to a wide variety of potatoes, beets, wheat and other produce. Three of their staple potato varieties are All Blue, Adirondack Red and Adirondack Blue/Purple. In 1901, William LaJoie, the family patriarch, bought two hundred acres for his farm in Cyr Plantation. During those first few years, LaJoie cleared his fields of rocks and tree stumps and planted potatoes. In 2000, just over one hundred years later, William’s great-great-great grandson, Dominic, saw a financial opportunity in expanding the family’s potato varieties to include colorful heirloom potatoes for niche markets.

blue potatoes in storage facility
Blue potatoes in new storage facility at LaJoie farm. (Photo courtesy of Paul Cyr)

That year the LaJoies invested in “All Blue” and “Adirondack Blue” potatoes on a large scale. At the time, Adirondack Blues were available only at farmers’ markets and specialty grocery stores. They were considered a novelty product. Dominic, with the help of his brother Gilbert, ended that novelty status when they landed a deal with Terra Chips. Terra now buys LaJoie Growers’ blue potatoes for JetBlue Airlines’ blue-chip inflight snack. The LaJoies sell three million pounds of their blue potatoes to Terra Chips and have seen the popularity of Terra Chips explode on the chip market.

Colorful Potato Popularity Increases

As the popularity of colorful potatoes has increased, so have the recipes for cooking them. Potatoes USA, the nation’s potato marketing and research organization, is a good place to look for new ways to cook and serve potatoes (potatogoodness.com/about-us/). One of their chefs describes the blue/purple potato as a hero ingredient. “Think of purple potatoes as a hero ingredient to add to green salads or potato medleys.” These colorful potatoes are also less time-consuming to prepare, as there is no need to precook them, and their delicate quality allows them to be grilled, steamed and roasted raw. There is also no reason to peel these beauties. Red, blue and purple potatoes pop up in recipes for backyard parties and black-tie events.

While these unique potatoes look and taste good, there is more and more scientific evidence that red, blue and purple potatoes are cancer fighters. According to researchers at Penn State, there may be several substances in purple potatoes that work simultaneously on multiple pathways to help kill colon cancer stem cells. There is also growing evidence that red, blue and purple potatoes are antioxidant-rich and help in regulating blood pressure, preventing blood clots and improving endurance.

Maine’s Potato History

With a long and respected history of growing Maine potatoes, Aroostook County lies three hours north of Bangor, bordering the St. John’s River. It is New England’s northernmost county. Here visitors are likely to see a combine harvester at work in an endless field of oats or thousands of acres of potatoes. With over 8,000 farms in Aroostook County, most of which devote some of their acreage to potatoes, it is home to some of Maine’s most fertile farmland.

During the 1940s, the state dominated the nation in potato production. Since those heydays, acreage devoted to potatoes has decreased, but the state is still seen as a place where potato farmers devote time and resources to cultivating new disease-resistant varieties and innovative ways to market this incredibly popular root vegetable. Farming families like the LaJoies and Gerritsens are just a few examples of Aroostook county farmers who continue to develop Maine’s unique agricultural history of breeding, cultivating and growing potatoes.

The Next Generation of Colorful Potatoes

Gerritsen is personally and professionally excited about the next generation of organic potato research, as it includes his son Caleb, who recently took over Wood Prairie Farm. Gerritsen sees promise in the movement for vertical rather than horizontal breeding and in the research of developing resistance traits specifically to benefit the organically grown potato.

In addition, he is in the midst of his own research project on a red potato variety named Sharpo Una. Una, harvested from mid-\June onwards, is perfect for growing in pots or potato sacks. Currently under trials at Wood Prairie Farm, it has a good resistance to late blight and a range of other diseases. Gerritsen is eager to finish up his trials and hopes to add the Sharpo Una potato seed to his catalog by 2022.

Potato Growing Resources

No matter what variety or color potato you plan to plant, there are excellent resources across the country for new and veteran farmers who, want to add a little color to farmer’s markets, co-ops and their own tables. One of those resources is Jim Gerritsen himself. Jim is the president of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association and has served for more than twenty years on the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association certification committee.

His enthusiasm for growing potatoes is contagious, as is his interest in sharing his discoveries. One place he does this is on his website: woodprairie.com. The site includes a concise guide on growing potatoes, advice about unit-tuber planting, instructions for green sprouting, seed treatments to increase tuber sets and much, much more. It is also a good place to find out the results of the Sharpo Una test trials, which should wrap up in 2020.

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