Bean There: Cold Calls & Hot Potatoes

Really, this was my fault. Stephanie hadn’t wanted to do it this way at all. She thought it would be better for one of us to fly to St John’s, rent a car, and visit farmers in the surrounding area. With only six days to work with, it was a better use of time.

View of North Sydney from deck of Marine Atlantic Ferry to Newfoundland. (By Tango7174 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

View of North Sydney from deck of Marine Atlantic Ferry to Newfoundland. (Photo by Tango7174, own work, GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons)

As the regional co-ordinator for the national seed project known as the Bauta Initiative, Stephanie Hughes had the final say. But as extension and outreach (and the serious seedhead of the team), I had other ideas.

“There’s more to Newfoundland than St John’s,” I argued. “For the same money, we can both take the ferry from North Sydney — travel overnight to save time — and cover the whole island from Port-aux-Basques to St John’s. Eat out of the cooler and stay at B & Bs.”

I really wanted to reach growers off the beaten track and outside the urban areas for this seed project, as well as outside the usual food-security/activist networks. I extravagantly offered to take my car. Which meant I would also be doing all the driving since Stephanie didn’t drive stick.

 

Navigating Newfoundland

Not for nothing am I a Cape Bretoner. Talking is our superpower – though I use it only for good and not evil.

So, at the beginning of June four years ago, after putting in a full day at the Baddeck Market, I made a quick pit-stop to load the car with food, seeds and transplants for samples, picked up Stephanie from the bus, and at midnight, we sailed across the Cabot Strait. She had thoughtfully booked us a cabin, so I got a few hours sleep, and when the ferry landed, we began the first stretch of our 2,400-kilometer, six-day marathon tour.

Since I was, by necessity, the pilot, she was navigator and communications. That night, in our room in Cornerbrook, Stephanie took out the road atlas and plotted the next day’s route and stops. “George Brinson,” she muttered, “He’s in Clarenville, right?” It was only 8 pm but I was already mostly asleep.

“Yeah, that’s right,” I mumbled before I blacked out.

The next day, I drove where she told me to go, based on her careful route-planning, talking to farmers from Cornerbrook to Heart’s Content, giving away seeds and plants, trying to persuade them to try some of my own rare varieties and patiently answering questions about seed-saving tricks in marginal climates.

Initial skepticism was replaced with respect and interest when they learned I farmed in Cape Breton. Stephanie, who had only known me for the few months we’d been working together was astounded. “How did you find these people?” she asked. I told her I’d gotten the list of producers from the Newfoundland Department of Agriculture and then I’d cold-called them, asking to visit.

“And they just said yes?!”

I looked at her.

See above paragraph:

Chatting = Superpower.

 

TransCanada U-turn

I had saved George Brinson for last. I had gotten his name from the list of growers for Seeds of Diversity Canada, and as an SoDC board member, a visit with him was close to my heart. From his listings, I figured he wouldn’t need much help from me but I was really curious to see all the projects he currently had going on at his place. After we finished our second-to-last visit, we got in the car and I wearily started driving south down the TransCanada Highway, following Stephanie’s directions.

Carmanville, Newfoundland. (Photo via Flickriver http://www.flickriver.com/places/Canada/Newfoundland+and+Labrador/Carmanville/search/)

Carmanville, Newfoundland. (Photo via Flickriver)

“So,” she said brightly, “On to Clarenville, right? I’ll just phone him and tell him we’ll be a little late.”

I stopped the car. George lives in Carmanville – an hour and a half from there. In the opposite direction. We had passed it six hours and two farm visits ago. We looked at each other. I swore and without asking permission or forgiveness, made a hard U-turn and hit the pedal going north. Maybe it was sheer terror at my manic determination but Stephanie did not argue or discuss the wisdom of the decision but got on the (thankfully working) cell phone and phoned Georgie Brinson to tell him what we’d done but that we were still coming.

They say that God looks after lunatics and fools and it must be true, because we didn’t get stopped by the police or hit any moose, though we certainly deserved to. We pulled into the Brinson’s driveway around 5 o’clock. He was laughing as he came out to the car to meet us:

“Oh, my dears,” he said,” You’d make terrible secret agents!”

Although, as Stephanie, pointed out, if all secret agents were as inept as we were, it would probably make the world a safer place.

 

Waxy, starchy & sweet

Potatoes are clones, propagated vegetatively. To grow more potatoes, you plant potatoes, not potato seeds. This way, the potatoes you grow will be essentially identical genetically to the ones you planted. Potato plants will produce seeds, and you can plant them if you like, but your chances of actually growing an edible potato are roughly one in 10,000. Perhaps those are better odds than winning the lottery, but since it’s a year or two before you get a potato plant growing something you can taste, it looks like a lot of work.

Peruvian purple potato plant. (Photo by Michelle Smith)

Peruvian purple potato plant. (Photo by Michelle Smith)

Potatoes originated in the high Andes mountains of South America. The native peoples of Bolivia and Peru still grow many hundreds of varieties and the International Potato Gene Bank is housed in Lima, Peru. The potato bank for Plant Gene Resources Canada resides in Fredericton. We are used to eating white (or sometimes yellow) round, starchy ones, but there are orange, red and purple potatoes as well. Some are green with pink stripes. Some are long and skinny; some are waxy and sweet rather than starchy. If, like many Cape Bretoners, you think potatoes should be white and mashed or baked, yellow only if you add butter, there’s a whole big world waiting for you out there.

But like any plant, potatoes can fall victim to disease — in Newfoundland, it’s the potato wart virus. Before leaving the island, you have to wash your boots and tires to contain the spread of the virus. No dirt or plant material is permitted to leave the island for the same reason. (Sooner or later, of course, the virus will show up elsewhere. A thoughtless tourist, perhaps, on a tour of Atlantic Canada may inadvertently spread it from Come-by-Chance to Charlottetown. Some think this may have already happened but that the search for resistant varieties is being done quietly to avoid panic in the high-stakes potato industry.)

Which brings us back to Carmanville.

 

Experiments

George Brinson has what you’d call a curious mind. His projects range from rare varieties of black currants to, well, his real interest and love — potatoes.

George works at the wharf in Carmanville and he and his wife live in a small bunglaow on the edge of town. But genius can present a modest front: he has most of the seven races of the potato wart virus present on his one-acre property. And with his keen mind and willingness to experiment, this makes him gold for plant breeders wanting to test their varieties for resistance.

George Brinson and Michelle Smith.

George Brinson and Michelle Smith. (Photo by Stephanie Hughes)

He showed us the three-inch-thick non-disclosure agreements he had to sign for the large industry breeders. We toured his plots of carefully numbered potatoes – the only method of identification. Potatoes are very big business – Chips! Crinkle-cut Fries! Kraft Instant Mashed! – and industry breeders know a lot rides on patenting plants and closely guarding your experiment results. There was a lot he couldn’t talk about but the range of his knowledge was so great, we didn’t notice the gap.

We discussed the change in market preference from the traditional, dry, Green Mountain types to waxier varieties. He showed us how you could quickly test for starchiness by cutting the potato and smelling the fresh-cut surface. Try comparing a waxy fingerling type like La Ratte with a Green Mountain or a Chieftain and the difference is quite distinct. This means you don’t need to cook and eat potatoes to classify them for end use.

He also told us that most disease and virus resistance has to be bred in from the small and bitter wild types, so there are many back-crosses involved in breeding a potato that you actually want to eat. This is why his service testing new varieties is so valuable.

Wild potatoes form an important element of breeding programs with their variability and huge array of characteristics. At their center of origin in the High Andes, potatoes were an important staple and crop failure meant certain starvation. Farmers planted their potato crops between weedy hedgerows of plants gone wild, allowed to cross and breed unchecked. When a new virus or other disease presented, the “wild lab” provided the germplasm needed to cope with the challenge.

Heck, the Incans even invented the freeze-dried potato, as both a traveling food and a way to remove the bitterness from the tubers by dipping them in ice-cold streams and letting them freeze and thaw repeatedly in the cold nights at altitude. (Too bad they didn’t sue Kraft for patent infringement or violation intellectual property rights.

 

Iona potatoes

To my great delight, George knew and had corresponded with my friend Bill Higgins, of Iona, Cape Breton.

Bill’s retirement project – his dream fulfilled — is to devote his life to the collecting, growing and eating of his favorite food, grown on a half-acre plot by his house overlooking the Bras d’Or Lakes. He is responsible for re-introducing older varieties like the Calico and Cape Breton Blue Nose, which he and I think may also be the same as the rarely seen Prince Albert — thin purple skin, lumpy appearance, white flesh with purple streaks.

The Cape Breton Bluenose and Peruvian Purple potatoes. (Photo by Michelle Smith)

The Cape Breton Blue Nose and Peruvian Purple potatoes. (Photo by Michelle Smith)

Since Bill is allowed to ship potatoes off our island, he will often send samples of rare potatoes he collects to the PGRC bank in Fredericton to clean them up. Potatoes are virus accumulators. Commercial growers rely heavily on certified seed stock – seed potatoes that have been carefully cloned under lab conditions and grown in ultra-clean fields. If potatoes are simply grown, saved and replanted year after year, they will get run down, with various minor and major viruses building up and affecting looks and productivity.

Old-timers, when that happened, would harvest the plants while they were still growing – less time in the ground means less viral load taken on – and replant only the “chats,” the small potatoes too troublesome to cook and eat. (Smaller meaning less virus too.) I have done this myself with some very ugly Violetta potatoes I had been given and it took only three or four seasons before they began looking quite respectable again. The Fredericton lab, of course, can do this in a matter of months or weeks with their tissue culture equipment, and do a better job.

 

Lucky to get ’em

Potatoes have gotten a bad rap in recent years. The industry’s aggressive approach to profit margins means that farmers must grow ever-increasing acreages to generate the same net income.

They seem like cheap food on the front end, but the back end can often be an environmental disaster, with extensive fertilizer and chemical use in their production. Devastating fish kills on PEI have been attributed to chemical runoff.

Potato variety trials on George Brinson's half acre. (Photo by Stephanie Hughes)

Potato variety trials on George Brinson’s half acre. (Photo by Stephanie Hughes)

Because they are genetically uniform, there is no inbuilt mechanism for adaptation within the production model – only from the introduction of new varieties. Breeding programs, as pointed out earlier, are dominated and tightly controlled by the large players. Even the parameters for independent research are controlled by heavy-handed government regulation, provincial and federal. Raymond Loo of PEI, before his death, had hundreds, if not thousands of crosses he was testing and developing but because he was a farmer and independent researcher, he was in a constant battle with the provincial government who wanted his fields plowed up, on the spurious claim that they could incubate diseases. The Bauta Initiative struggled to get government approval for its own small potato-breeding project, so complicated were the legal agreements binding the researchers, even for access to germplasm.

The high, simple-starch content of potatoes is often cited as a contributor to diabetes and its complications. It’s true that plain, unadulterated potatoes can cause a blood sugar spike. But eat them with meat or other vegetables and their danger is lowered to acceptable levels. It turns out adding lemon juice and keeping them cold slows down the sugar spike as well, so have your potato salad. (Yeah, deep-frying them works too, but the poverty diet of potatoes, potatoes and lucky to get’em is a fast track to long-term health problems, so love the potato…but not too much.) Most of the vitamins are just beneath the skin. Buy or grow good, unsprayed spuds and put your peeler away.

 

Unsung heroes

As we boarded the boat to Cape Breton, we dutifully presented our rubber boots and tires for inspection and cleaning. I had purposely brought an old, worn pair of boots that I ditched in the ferry terminal garbage can to the clear relief of the inspection technician when he learned we had been visiting farms.

One of George Brinson's potato varieties. (Photo by Stephanie Hughes)

One of George Brinson’s potato varieties. (Photo by Stephanie Hughes)

I let him hose out the bin from the transplants, even though it had only been good Cape Breton soil inside, and watched as he paid special attention to our tires. He took his job seriously, and I was not going to argue with that.

You could say the same of Bill Higgins and George Brinson. What really delights me about them is not only their singular devotion to a root vegetable, but the curiosity and intelligence they bring to bear on their work. Neither has formal scientific training, as far as I know, and they are a long way, physically and otherwise, from the secretive, highly industrial sphere of potato plant breeding. Their kind of experience and knowledge may be overlooked and undervalued, made small in a larger world enamored of academic expertise.

In my ideal world, they would be the ones flown in for conference panel discussions. How cool would that be? If nothing else, it would give them a chance to meet, which they never have. They rarely leave their small communities. They do what they do for love, not glory.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have them meet for the first time and listen to them greet each other and share their experience in person? It is possible that they would be appalled at that sort of attention, diffident at least. But in my world, they are heroes — with superpowers.

 

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Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.

 

 

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