It’s Harvest Time: Potatoes
September 23, 2020
“No part of the world is better fitted by nature for growing potatoes than the mountain districts of Colorado… The Roaring Fork and Crystal River Valley section of Colorado is as nearly perfect in soil conditions as can be found, and the potatoes grown there are not excelled anywhere in the world, and are equaled in but a few places.” – The Potato, Eugene Grubb, 1912
Potatoes are, in my opinion, the quintessential harvest product to celebrate. They are planted at the beginning of our outdoor growing season, tended to all summer, then harvested near the end of the season. By selecting several different varieties and storing in ideal conditions, we can enjoy potatoes all winter long and nearly year round.
A Rich Roaring Fork Valley History
Potatoes have historically been a very big part of agriculture in the Roaring Fork Valley. In the early 1900’s an Irish immigrant named Thomas McClure settled in Carbondale and introduced a variety of potato now called the Red McClure. This potato became a favorite of the local growers, as well as growers in other major growing areas of the state. Over the years, potato varieties that were redder and had smaller, less pronounced dimples were selected and the Red McClure fell out of favor, until nearly facing extinction. In 2010, members of the Roaring Fork chapter of the Slow Food movement searched for the variety that called Carbondale its home. In September of that year, the Red McClure potato was added to the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste, a group of over 200 foods that are deemed delicious, endangered, and worth fighting to protect.
The soils and climate of the Roaring Fork Valley are perfect for growing potatoes. It has been said that in the 1920’s the Roaring Fork Valley produced more potatoes than the entire state of Idaho. At this time, the town of Carbondale was exporting around 400 railroad cars of potatoes annually. By the 1930’s labor shortages and low potato prices essentially killed the potato industry in the valley.
But today, the potato growing fields are increasing in the valley. Rock Bottom Ranch plants and harvests a small area each year (about 5000 square feet) and we typically yield around 1200# of potatoes from this small area. Other valley growers are putting potatoes back into the agricultural lands as well; Woody Creek Distillers harvests well over 1 million pounds of potatoes annually.
How We Grow Potatoes
Our vegetable production systems have evolved over the years at Rock Bottom Ranch. The techniques of growing vegetables that I learned as I was starting were very tractor and cultivation intensive. We have evolved mostly to systems that move away from tractor cultivation, focusing more on hand tools and minimal soil disturbance. However, there is certainly a time and place for tractors in small scale, intensive vegetable production – and the potato lends itself well to tractor management. Most mechanized growing has been scaled up, but small scale potato growing equipment still exists.
In mid-May, we prepare our potato beds – this can be with a tiller, a disc, or by occlulation over the winter with black tarps. We use a single row potato planter that is mounted behind the tractor. This simple, yet innovative, piece of equipment creates a furrow, drops a potato seed every 12 inches, then covers it up.
It typically takes 2-3 weeks for potato plants to sprout above the soil line. We try to cultivate and hill the potato plants every 2-3 weeks from June through September. “Hilling” potatoes is simply adding organic material around the plant as it grows up. We use a tractor and discs to add more soil around the plant, but this could be achieved on a small scale with a rake. The main purpose of hilling: more potatoes; Tubers form below the soil surface and they need to be covered and away from sunlight to develop.
Depending on variety, potatoes reach maturity in 90-120 days. We harvest starting in late August and have a few tools to accomplish the task. A potato plow (also called a middlebuster) or a potato digger can dig under the potatoes, loosening the soil and lifting the potatoes to the surface. The agriculture team comes behind and gathers all of the potatoes, looking for any areas that may have been missed by the tools. Potatoes are left in the field for a few hours for an initial cure, which toughens up the skins enough to be gathered in bags and moved to market or storage.
Thank you for celebrating the Harvest Season with us at Rock Bottom Ranch this year. We hope you have enjoyed our blog articles these past few weeks! If you missed any, click here.
We also invite you to join us for the 111th Annual Potato Day Celebration in Carbondale this Saturday, October 3rd to see all of the varieties that we grew this year.
Rock Bottom Ranch Director