By Erin Schneider, Hilltop Community Farm
As a CSA farmer, I love this time of year, that hit of ephemeral mojo, the smell of the soil exhaling with the first turn of the broadfork, passing of the tiller, and the resulting winter amnesia that will carry me through the next few months of intense planting. Spring is also all about timing and discovery.
Like the first asparagus that pokes through the ground, the anticipation of planting this year’s variety trials brings me joy. Our potatoes have arrived. I sift through the contents noting instructions and possible layouts, celebrating the colors textures of each individual tuber from Austrian Crescent to Gui Valley, and appreciation of how well organized, labeled and clear the instructions are. Thank you Ruth and team! How will these new varieties size up? Are they compatible with our soil and management practices? How do they respond to potential disease pressure and surface defects? Will our customers enjoy the tastes and textures of Papa Cacho or Early Blue?
And…wait, what exactly have I gotten myself into with this research and where will I put the potatoes?
The variety trials are part of the Organic Seed Potato Project at UW-Madison, and works with organic farmers in the Midwest to select potato varieties that excel under organic management.
This year 29 farmers are participating from 6 Upper Midwest states: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, and South Daktoa. While interests may vary for participating, you don’t need to have years of field research experience to engage in the project.
“Last year was the first year I participated in the variety trials. Honestly, I was just curious and this was a chance for me to satisfy my horticultural curiosity and I had a lot of fun along the way,” Laura Mortimore, Organic Farmer, Owner of Orange Cat Community Farm in Reedsburg, WI, shared. I also have interns at the farm and it was great to see them engage with the project as well. I appreciated having a crop that we could closely observe and monitor from planting to tasting.”
Whether you’re a veteran variety trialer like Laura, or new to the project, by now you’ve had a chance to connect with Ruth Genger, Project Lead at UW Madison Department of Plant Pathology, and discuss varieties you’d like to trial, what the research entails and how to communicate results. You have also received your soil sample bag in the mail and took your sample, sent it back for analysis (or will soon:-).
You will be receiving detailed instructions and suggestions for laying out your variety trial plot from Ruth and team when your potatoes arrive. The following is a general summary and flow of what to expect:
1. Tell us about your farm. This is important, so please remember to fill out farm the information sheet that you will receive. It should only take you 5 minutes. You can also fill out on-line.
What is emerging from past years’ data is that variety performance appears to correlate more closely with the soil type and management practices representative of each farm, rather than the variety itself. I was intrigued by this discovery – how you grow it is what you get. Maybe there is indeed a ‘potato terroir’. (Look for a future blog posting that summarizes discoveries from past research, and what this might mean for future opportunities).
2. Treat all varieties you have received (with respect) and in the same way. As with humanity, this is also the ‘golden rule’ of potatoes.
- Plant the varieties on the same at the same spacing
- Use the same management practices you’ve been using with potatoes and implement practices on the same date for all varieties.
- Harvest all varieties within a few days of each other.
3. Spacing and Plot Layout. If you haven’t laid out a research trial before, you may be wondering how to ensure that tuber spacing is consistent between varieties. Fortunately, you have options and some excellent reference notes from Ruth and the Organic Potato Project Research team. The following diagrams are a few suggestions that you may find useful.
Most participants will receive 10 tubers for each variety. Ideally plant 2 rows of 5 tubers (side by side).
- Formula to calculate length of row in ft: 5 tubers (within-row spacing x 5)/12
- For ten tubers: (within row spacing x 10)/12
- Plant your trial in a part of your field or garden that is reasonably uniform (soil type, slope, fertility, past use etc.).
- Your potatoes will be chitted and ready for planting when they arrive. As Laura observed, “I also learned a lot from the variety trial last year and was surprised to find that all but one of the trial varieties performed really well at my farm. I think it was because the seed potatoes were well chitted. I found it interesting to plant seed potatoes prepared by someone else and compare this to my own seed potatoes. “
- Mark each variety with a labeled stake
- Map your area
5. Field Observations: From here it is farming as usual and Ruth notes the importance of following your usual rotation and management practices. Ruth will send an easy-to use-variety trial rating form for early and late season field observations, as well as a sheet for recording yield data at time of harvest.
6. Harvest at peak yield rather than for new potatoes. If you’re like me and your 4th of July just isn’t complete without a dish of early red potato salad, you’ll have to resist harvesting from your variety trial plots and stick to your standard plantings. At harvest time we’re looking for total weight and marketable/eatable weight, and any noticeable surface defects such as scab and scurf.
A sampling of the harvest at the Krouse Farm in 2014. Photo by Laura Krouse
7. Taste Testing (optional yet a fun and insightful way to involve your CSA members and market customers into giving feedback and a great excuse for a potluck or potato recipe contest). We were never huge fans of purple potatoes, but have found that our CSA members (especially the kids) love purple viking and it’s become a staple variety for us.
8. Share your results
Ruth and team have made it easy to record data and share via email. As your variety trials are underway, Ruth will send you this info.
9. Relax and settle into dormancy mode alongside your potatoes
10. Dream of spring, start again!
Hopefully you’ll find these suggestions helpful and let your horticultural curiosity be your guide. You never know what will emerge from the potato fields as Laura noted, ” I was surprised at how well all the varieties performed. Variety trial plants had no scab present, yet my seed potatoes had moderate scab. I’m looking forward to participating again this year, because it’s been great for our farm, has peaked my interest in growing different fingerling varieties, and I am more attuned to preparing and chitting seed potatoes.”
As always, if you have any questions about the trial, please feel free to contact Ruth by email (email@example.com) or phone (608-239-6088).
From the Archive:Blog Posts and tagged organic potatoes, potato variety trials.