HORNTOWN, Va. – Roasted, baked, fried or mashed, smothered in gravy or chilled for a summer salad – potatoes are a nutrient-rich vegetable with endless culinary versatility.
February is National Potato Lovers Month, an opportunity to learn more about the world’s fourth-largest food crop.
While potatoes are not ranked among the top Virginia vegetable crops, nine growers on the Eastern Shore produce roughly 90 percent of the state’s tubers on 4,000 acres. These potatoes generate upward of $20 million in annual sales.
Virginia potato farmers are preparing to plant this year’s crop in March for harvest in July and August. Farmers reported last summer’s harvest was a strong one.
“We were a little worried because it was such a wet spring, but it dried down and we had a good year,” said Ursula Tankard Deitch, Virginia Cooperative Extension agent in Northampton County. “It’s easier to have a dry year, because the crop can be regulated with irrigation. Wet can cause rot and disease issues.”
The Eastern Shore’s sandy loam soil and temperate climate are ideal for growing perfect potatoes. Unlike clay soils, there is more space between soil particles, so water can filtrate instead of pooling on the crop, which helps the tubers grow. Plus, Deitch said, spuds like it warm, but not too warm.
“The Eastern Shore stays a little warmer in the wintertime compared to rest of the state,” she said.
While grains like soybeans and corn are produced on greater acreage and therefore gross more in sales, potatoes are the Eastern Shore’s largest vegetable crop, Deitch added.
“We have a long history in the potato business on the Eastern Shore,” said Accomack County grain and vegetable farmer David Hickman, whose family has been growing potatoes on Dublin Farms since the 1880s. Hickman represents the Eastern Shore on Virginia Farm Bureau Federation’s board of directors and chairs the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Specialty Crops Advisory Committee.
The farms’ potato varieties (round white, red, purple and yellow flesh) mostly end up in supermarkets. Some grocery chains have initiated buy-local programs in response to consumer interest in local produce, Hickman said.
“Our potato bags say ‘Horntown, Virginia’ on them, while most of the bags in stores don’t have an identifying area,” he said. “In our first year selling to Walmart, their potato sales increased significantly, which reflects consumer desire to know where their produce comes from.”
So how does a lifelong grower like his potatoes?
“Mashed with gravy,” Hickman said. “But I like them any way. They’re nutritious, a good source of vitamins and minerals. If you don’t load them down with high-calorie condiments, they are pretty healthy for you!”
– Virginia Farm Bureau Federation