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Potato High School

Potatoes. Mashed, hash-browned, French-fried, boiled, foiled (as in baked), souped, roasted, saladed, totted, Augratined or chipped. How do you like potatoes? Perhaps your taste leans more toward European styles like latkes (potato pancakes) or gnocchi (Italian potato pasta). Ah, how the world loves potatoes. But, do most people know how they grow? Potato trees? On bushes? A very small percentage of people who eat potatoes could actually identify the plant from which they grow. The French name for potato is 'pomme de terre' which means apple of the earth and provides a serious hint that potatoes grow underground. But, if they were called 'subterranean starch tubers' in English would that make them more or less appealing? I'm thinking less. Try adding any of the above names before or after and see if that sounds appealing. "I think I'll have the baked beans as a side." But, keep the name potatoes and say "I would like the creamy garlic mashed potatoes, or the baked potato with butter, sour cream and chives," - now we're talkin'!

Fact. Not all potatoes come from Idaho. Many come from right here in the San Luis Valley. I visited the Rockey Farm north and west of the town of Center in mid-December. Was anything going on in early deep winter? Lots! Brendan Rockey took me around the farm to show me their operation and though I know a bit about farming­—my grandparents had a small farm in central Illinois so I know about corn and soybeans—I was amazed at the complexity of what goes into growing one of our favorite foods.

Our first stop was in the lab. We are not the only creatures that like potatoes. There are bacteria, fungi, viruses, nematodes, and other miscellaneous diseases with nearly unpronounceable names that can affect potatoes. Growers must constantly work with many varieties of the plants to attempt to 'stay ahead' of these diseases. A lab is required where 'baby potato' plants are being grown in a controlled environment. Some of these will graduate to the greenhouses where light, temperature, and humidity are controlled and the potato plants are being grown through the winter.

How about the potatoes you are eating now? We went to the storage buildings where potatoes were piled in massive bins, again in a very controlled environment of temperature and humidity. As potatoes are 'alive' (think about how the eyes grow in the pantry) they require air to be circulated up through the piles to avoid some of the above-mentioned diseases. Ever smelled a rotten potato? Not good.

Potato High School - Potatoes have to get packaged to get to stores so Brendan took me to the old Mosca High School where several growers have recycled the whole school into a potato processing plant. So, since potatoes grow underground and have mud on them when they get dug up - who gets to wash them? After they get unloaded, they go through several wash bins via conveyor belts and continue on their journey. The most fascinating to me was the 'potato pinball machine' which is a place where, as the potatoes are coming along on the conveyor belt, has multiple cameras that are watching each potato for any rotten spots, not being a whole potato, or other defective spud problems and any of these potatoes set off sets of paddles like pinball machine flippers and whack the bad potatoes back and down onto another conveyor where they will get processed into something else other than for human consumption. I watched for several minutes but could have stood there for an hour without getting bored. It was fun to watch the paddles swat the bad potatoes and I had no idea such a machine existed!

Next up was the size sorter. The potatoes, still on conveyors, are then forced onto cylindrical metal tubes that are rolling. There are spaces between the tubes such that when each potato reaches the space which is bigger than it, the potato will drop down according to its size. Thus, the potatoes have been through school without human contact. They get bagged and checked by humans at this point, according to size and variety, stacked and are ready for the trucks to take them to their store distribution warehouses. And this was the middle of winter!

Rockey Farms plant their seed potatoes with companion crops that grow between the rows of potatoes. They use buckwheat (has flowers that attract good insects!) and peas, chickpeas and vetch that are legumes that add nitrogen to the soil (Nitrogen is a good thing!) Over the last twenty years, through a soil fertilization process of 'green manure,' growing up to fifteen species of plants (diversity is also good!) and then allowing cattle to graze, adds all healthy items to the soil. Healthier soil also requires less watering over the life of the potato plants during the summer growing season.

Growing schedule as follows:

Rockey Farms plants seed potatoes during the first week of May using a planter that plants the potatoes and the companion crops at the same time. They let Mother Nature take over with her sunshine and warm days followed by cool nights. Cool nights stimulate the plants to store the excess food they have made during the day into their underground tubers which we call potatoes! Because of the dry climate, farmers do have an irrigation schedule as needed to complete the growing process. By the end of August, the above-ground plants are sprayed with sulfuric acid to kill them. (Sulfuric acid is a chemical but does not hurt the soil or get into the potatoes underground.) The potatoes are left underground for 2-4 weeks to let their skins set more firmly to the inside flesh of the potato that will become your mashed potatoes or french fries later in the year! The potatoes are then harvested mechanically, dug up, and transferred to their storage barns for several months before they go 'back to school' to begin the distribution process all over again. Lots to think about next time we eat potatoes!

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