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Potatoes – What else?

Scientists believe that the potato plant originated in the Andes Mountains of South America. Pre-Colombian societies of this region cultivated the original plant and it spread from there to other indigenous American societies.

Originally, the plant contained the solanine toxin and during cultivation, the gene responsible for the toxin was isolated. The Peruvian society cultivated many varieties of different shapes, colors and textures, each requiring different growing conditions.

According to a popular folk tale, Sir Walter Raleigh was the first to bring the potato to England.  According to historians, it was Sir Francis Drake. In 1586, after fighting the Spanish in the Carribean Islands, Drake stopped in Carajena, Colombia to stock up on food supplies, including tobacco and potato bulbs.

Before returning to England, he stopped on Roanoke Island, where English settlers tried to establish a colony. The pioneers returned to England with Drake and with the potatoes.

Farmers found potatoes easier to grow and cultivate compared to other starchy foods, such as oatmeal and wheat. Potato crops generate more food energy per plot of land than any other European crop, requiring only a shovel to harvest them (half an acre is enough to grow potatoes to cover the annual consumption of an entire family). This is why, in 1650, potatoes were Ireland’s main carbohydrate crop and they began replacing wheat as the main crop in other areas of Europe, as they were used to feed humans and animals alike.

The first reference to potatoes in North America comes from the Irish settlers of Londonderry, New Hampshire in 1719.

The potato is currently associated with Ireland, but its ancient history is unclear.

  • According to one assumption, potatoes washed onto the Irish shores from sunken galleons of the Spanish Armada (1588).
  • According to another story, it was Sir Walter Raleigh: He funded trans-Atlantic missions, at least one of which anchored in Smerwick, County Kerry in October 1587. Nevertheless, there are no records of the botanical varieties stored on the ship or their growth in Ireland.
  • Other stores claim that Sir Walter Raleigh planted the first potato at his estate near Cork.

According to source dated 1699 (a century after the event): “Sir Walter Raleigh brought the potato from Virginia.  He stopped in Ireland where some of the plants were planted and they thrived and were put to good use, because during three consecutive wars, when all of the corn was destroyed, it supported the crops. Because the soldiers could not grow roots without digging up the land, and nearly lost them”.

Regardless of its origin, the potato gained popularity in Ireland thanks to its high yields and ability to hide underground. English estate owners encouraged their tenant farmers to grow potatoes because they wanted to produce more wheat – if the Irish could survive on a crop that required less land, there would be more land for them to grow wheat.

A terrible event is related to the potatoes – the Great Famine in Ireland. During the 1840’s, a potato disease spread throughout Europe, harming the crop that Ireland’s economy depended on. During the famine, approximately 0.5 million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland.

In the 17th century, the potato was established as the starchy staple for the poor, although this gradually shifted until, in the late 18th century, the potato gained popularity in France thanks to public relations by Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, a member of Louis XV’s court.  Potage Parmentier is named after him.

In Russia, potatoes met with initial suspicion and were called “the Devil’s apples” because of folklore surrounding things that grow underground or that have associations with dirt.

Agronomic Principles

Potatoes respond well to temperate climates, thus it is a summer crop in northern countries (Europe and North America) while it is a winter and spring crop in Israel.  Physiologically, the potato responds during the day and to temperature, where growth is a factor of the two climatic elements combined with the variety’s specific effect. This complexity impacts determination of the variety and sowing dates in the various growth regions.

Impact of the length of day on potato development

A short day encourages stolon and tubers development, while a long day encourages landscapes. Therefore, when potatoes are sowed in the winter, when the day is short, tubers will begin developing immediately after budding, while the plant landscape will develop later. On the other hand, when sowing potatoes in the summer, when the day is longer, the plant landscape will develop first, followed by the stolons and tubers. This phenomenon causes differences in potato crops sowed in various seasons and also impacts the growing character. In Israel – the potato is a short day crop while in Europe, it is a long day crop.

Potato reaction to temperature

The temperature in which potatoes grow has a great impact on the growing character: High temperatures will encourage development in the ground – stolons and tubers, while low temperatures will encourage landscape development. [Reference Required]

Sowing potatoes during the hot season and the long day could lead to the development of a tall landscape of 1m or more, while the soil will remain void of tubers or have small tubers reflecting a poor crop.

Sowing in the winter, when it is cold, will create a small plant with multiple tubers that will also be smaller due to a shortage of area allowing nutrients to fill the tubers.

Effects of Rain

Rain is necessary in order to provide the water for the crops.  On the other hand, plant moisture will encourage the development of crop diseases caused by fungi or bacteria. Therefore, it is important to adjust the sowing season to the rainfall regime in the region and avoid sowing during very rainy seasons in which it is difficult to use certified materials for regular farming. In organic agriculture, due to restrictions on pesticide use, greater care must be taken when selecting the sowing season and intended sowing area.

Varieties

There are brown, yellow, pink and purple potatoes (often called blue potatoes). Their meat could be white or similar to their skin. Larger potatoes can be stored for longer periods.

Potato varieties differ in their resistance to various processing methods. Some will retain their original qualities when boiled, some will only retain their shape when baked, some taste better when roasted in the oven, some are suited for salads (usually hard varieties, that look like wax when boiled) and some that, when mashed, create a consistent texture, with no fibers or lumps.

Cultivation

The potato plant is low.  The potato is a therophytic plant that only grows during one season and it has white flowers and yellow stamen. It is suited for cold and wet weather, like Belarus, Poland, Germany and Russia, but it adapts easily and can be grown in temperate climates as well.

Sprouts are called “eyes” appearing on the surface of potato tubers. Since various potato species do not produce seeds (mainly their flowers), potatoes are multiplied by planting pieces of existing tubers, spliced to contain at least one “eye” in each piece.

Diseases and their Treatment

In general, potatoes are sensitive to a relatively large number of diseases and viruses. The variety of disease prevention treatments is very wide, ranging from various pesticides, fumigation, solar disinfection and an assortment of organic methods. Israel is a world leader in the study of advanced treatment methods.

Potato Growth in Israel

In Israel, potato growth covers an area of ~40,000 acres.
The annual yield for these areas is ~650,000 tons. Nearly half, ~300,000 tons, is intended for export to Europe. There are two growth seasons in Israel: The autumn/winter season is usually sowed in September and October and the crops, harvested between December and April, are intended for export and immediate local marketing. The spring season is usually sowed in December and January and the crops, harvested in May and June, is fully intended for the local market. Between July and December, the local market enjoys refrigerated spring potatoes.

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