Monroe farmers strive for the perfect potato

  • By Sarah Jackson Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, November 28, 2007 12:15pm
  • LifeMonroe

How do you tell if a potato labeled Yukon Gold is really a Yukon Gold?

You look it in the eyes.

If the eyes of the potato — those little dents that will eventually sprout new potatoes — are slightly blushed with pink, you’ll know it’s a rich-tasting, buttery-yellow Yukon Gold and not a “pseudo Yukon” or some plain old yellow potato.

Look closely.

Grocery stores sometimes mislabel bulk produce items, said Jan Alden, who runs Alden Farms, a certified organic potato farm in Monroe, with her husband, Peter.

Jan Alden believes stores aren’t intentionally deceptive.

It’s more likely an accident or the convenience of not having to change the sign on a potato bin every time a different crop arrives, which is often during the holiday season.

“Most of the guys who work in the store don’t know,” Jan Alden said, adding that the Yukon Gold name helps sell potatoes.

Though the Aldens’ organic potato crop is about one-third Yukon Golds, they grow about 20 other varieties for wholesalers as well as select Seattle-area farmers markets.

Their fall harvest, an epic and grand affair yielding more than 700,000 pounds, runs from Labor Day through early November and involves a high-tech German-made digger that trails behind a John Deere tractor.

In seconds, it pulls potatoes from the earth, jiggles off the dirt and spits the spuds onto a conveyor belt where a crew of five sorts them into large white bins.

“In 15 minutes, we’ll dig 2,000 pounds,” Peter Alden said, walking the Snohomish River valley fields he’s leased on Marsh Road for this year’s 40-acre potato crop and a 70-acre experimental canola crop.

But a potato farmer’s work doesn’t stop with harvest.

Next the potatoes travel to the Alden homestead south of Monroe, where the Aldens live in a 100-year-old restored Victorian home with their children, Danielle, 16, and Justin, 11, who help out at farmers markets.

Though the Aldens used to farm next to their home, they stopped when they realized the land wasn’t quite right for potatoes. Instead, they use the acreage to store, wash and package their potatoes.

Perfect presentation is required in the world of potato sales, especially in fluorescent-lit, shiny grocery stores.

“They want pretty produce in there, regardless of taste,” Peter Alden said.

What’s more important to the Aldens is excellent storage and taste, the latter especially coveted by local chefs and gourmet home cooks.

Most large commercial farms soak, compress and spray potatoes to make them sparkling clean.

They look great, but there is a downside.

“They end up taking half the skin off,” Peter Alden said, adding that in Europe, potatoes are sold dirty for maximum storage life. “They think we’re goofy over here.”

Alden Farms potatoes live a more charmed life.

Workers spray them lightly to remove excess dirt as they tumble over a series of brushes that take them to a machine that sorts them by size. Next, workers in an assembly-line fashion, roll them in towels for a final polishing before they are dried with fans and boxed or bagged for delivery.

Jan Alden’s farmers market customers, who often buy 50-pound boxes, say their potatoes store for months, not days, thanks to thicker skins.

How exactly does one get into potato farming?

With the Aldens, it was not an inherited career.

In fact, both left corporate jobs in the mid-1990s to follow their radical dream of starting an organic farm while raising a family.

“We did one of those mid-30s things: Do we want to sit in an office for the rest of our life?” said Peter Alden, now 48, who had been working in the computer software industry for 20 years.

“I was always interested in growing food,” said Peter Alden, who was born in Boston and grew up in British Columbia.

Jan Alden, now 50, had been working for an air-quality consulting firm for 10 years. She grew up in Tacoma and never thought she’d end up farming. In fact, she had intentionally avoided it by not marrying a farmer.

“My grandparents were both in farming,” she said. “I figure this is my destiny.”

Today that means the Aldens have become not only promoters of small farms but also farmland advocates.

“The more we can grow locally and consume locally, the better off we’ll be,” Peter Alden said. “I really do believe we’re on the cusp of a local food movement.”

But he isn’t an idealist.

His goal, after more than 15 years of farming, is to survive amid encroaching development, rising land prices and steep competition from large farms.

“It’s been a challenging year,” he said of a steady rain earlier this year. “One of the reasons that many of the farms have moved into the deserts is exactly what we’re dealing with this year. You end up with wet conditions. That affects the quality of the crop.”

Despite having to fight late potato blight every summer, Peter Alden has no intension of moving to Eastern Washington. He believes Snohomish County was meant for farming.

“I would love to be able to buy this land,” he said. “Western Washington is good potato country.”

If operations like Alden Farms manage to survive, it will be because of loyal, local-food customers, Jan Alden said.

“At the farmers markets everyone’s concerned with taste,” she said. “In the grocery stores, it’s all about appearance. Yukons are not easy to grow pretty, especially in this part of the country. You’ve got to make it known to your produce managers that you want the best-tasting products. It’s just so fresh. That is the most important thing.”

Produce managers will respond to customer dedication to specific farms and they’ll pass their requests onto wholesalers such as Charlie’s Produce and the Organically Grown Co., known as OGC, which distribute Alden Farms potatoes, Jan Alden said.

“People tend to not pay too much attention to farms’ names, but they really need to start,” she said.

Consumers who wonder if there’s a big difference between a Yukon Gold and a regular yellow potato could do a little taste test.

That’s what Jan Alden did earlier this year.

She knew her family had become spoiled by their organically grown potatoes over the past decade, but she didn’t know how much until she decided to do a pan-frying taste test at home with organic Yukon Gold and regular organic yellow potatoes that were mislabeled Yukon Gold.

“I noticed right away they were looking different,” she said of the yellow potatoes, which started to lose their color and texture right away.

Meanwhile, the Yukon Golds started getting more yellow and nice and crispy on the outside.

Her kids, unaware of the experiment, ate all of the Yukons right away. When they moved onto the other samples, they wouldn’t even finish chewing them.

“We’re potato snobs,” Jan Alden said. “There really is a major difference between all these potatoes.”

Reporter Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037 or sjackson@heraldnet.com. Visit her green-living blog at www.heraldnet.com/ecogeek.

Though Peter and Jan Alden with Alden Farms grow some russet potatoes every year, they also produce many other varieties, including specialty heirlooms such as fingerlings. Here’s a look at some of the 20 different varieties they grow in Snohomish County.

Yukon Gold: This all-purpose, gold-fleshed potato is known for outstanding buttery taste and medium-dry texture, making it ideal for baking, boiling, steaming, mashing, frying or for use in soups. Its yellow flesh retains its color when cooked. Other yellow potatoes are often mislabeled Yukon Gold. To be sure you’re buying a Yukon Gold, look for a subtle pink blush around the potatoes’ eyes.

Yellow Finn: Similar to Yukon Gold, this yellow-flesh potato has superb flavor, buttery flesh and creamy texture. It’s excellent for baking, roasting, mashing, boiling or steaming.

German Butterball: This heirloom variety features smooth golden skin, deep yellow flesh and rich, full flavor, making it a great mashing, baking or hashbrown potato.

Chieftain: This popular, prolific potato has white flesh, smooth red skin. Most reds, including this one, are lower in starch than russets or whites and have a firm texture, making them good for boiling, smashing, roasting and steaming, or in casseroles, soups and salads.

All Blue: Blue potatoes originated in the motherland of all potatoes, South America, but they are now commonly grown in Washington. They’re a bit nutty and earthy tasting and will lighten only slightly when cooked. Keep them whole when roasting or add a little vinegar to your boiling water when cooking to retain the color.

Rose Finn Apple: This fingerling variety has beige, rose-blushed skin and waxy, bright-yellow flesh. Most fingerlings boil, roast and steam well. Their waxy, firm texture, excellent flavor and heirloom status has made them a darling of chefs in fine restaurants.

Princesse La Ratte: Culinary superstars of European haute cuisine love this French fingerling, mildly nutty, reminiscent of chestnuts, hazelnuts and almonds with a subtle sweetness, too.

Red Thumb: While most fingerlings have yellow or white flesh, this red-skinned fingerling has pink flesh, a great variety for impressing your dinner guests. It’s the least waxy of the fingerlings, which gives it a softer texture.

Sources: Washington State Potato Commission, Washington State University Potato Information and Exchange and Alden Farms of Monroe

Potatoes should be stored immediately in a cool, dark place in a brown paper bag or cardboard box. Light makes potatoes start to turn green, making them unsafe to eat. Try storing them in a dark corner of a garage or shed or under a sink that is next to an outside wall. Changes in temperature will encourage sprouting. Avoid storing potatoes, especially high-starch potatoes such as russets, in the refrigerator, which causes potato starches to turn to sugars. Some low-starch potatoes such as fingerlings can be stored in the refrigerator in brown paper bags, but bring them up to room temperature before using them.

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