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US: Effort aiming to spread the word about state potatoes

Vegetable and pest expert John Mishanec conducted a state-funded outreach program Wednesday at Schenectady Community College aimed at teaching farmers and chefs the importance of knowing about New York state potato production.

Mishanec, who is employed by Cornell University as integrated pest management specialist for vegetables in eastern New York, said most consumers know about New York state's apple varieties, McIntosh, Empire, Golden Delicious and others, but don’t know about New York's potato varieties. He said that in 2002, New York state's potato crops were devastated by a "leaf hopper" parasite. Since then, officials at Cornell have worked hard to create more parasite-resistant potato varieties for farmers and have studied how those varieties can be best used by chefs in the kitchen.

"We were doing variety trials out in the field, 18 to 20 varieties, and we'd evaluate them for resistance to leaf hoppers. One grower said to me, "This is great, but what I really want is a good-tasting potato", Mishanec said. "So we started evaluating potatoes for what they do in the kitchen, which nobody had ever done. This is totally revolutionary." Some potato varieties that Mishanec hopes consumers will become aware of include Keuka Gold potatoes, Reba potatoes, Andover potatoes and Salem potatoes, all grown in New York state. "I've been distributing potatoes to different chefs throughout eastern New York. That’s why we had a lot of chefs here", Mishanec said.

Paul Parker, owner of Chez Sophie Bistro in Saratoga Springs, said French cuisine has long placed a value on where foods are grown, a concept he said New York farmers and chefs should cultivate. "In a lot of ways, we have to acclimate and sell Americans on the idea that where something comes from is important to the end product, regardless of variety, such that a Keuka Gold itself will be different if it’s grown in western New York or if it's grown in Maryland", Parker said.

Different potatoes are better used for different potato products, according to experts who attended Mishanec’s program Wednesday at SCCC. Andover potatoes are best used for french fries because they contain a high amount of starch. Varieties such as Reba potatoes or Salem potatoes contain more sugar and are therefore sweeter. Paul Wigsten of Wigsten Farms said farmers would be well served by making sales trips to local restaurants to showcase their produce, provided they clean up first. He said they also shouldn’t be afraid to mark up the price by as much as 10 to 20% because fresher produce will be of higher value to restaurants because they can use more of it than food that is farther removed from harvest and closer to rotting.

Mishanec said Wednesday's forum was funded using an $11,000 grant from the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. According to Cornell officials, there are approximately 200 commercial-scale potato farms operating in New York state with about 20,000 acres in potato production. Cornell estimates that state potato growers sell $60 million to $70 million worth of potatoes each year.


Publication date: 2/29/2008


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