One of the more unusual, bottom up farming and food initiatives in Ireland is called the Sustainable Potatoes United Development Study, or SPUDS.
This involves self-styled 'citizen scientists' growing a rage of potentially blight resistant potato varieties, and reporting back on how their trial has gone.
In 2012, 1.5 tonnes of seed potatoes were distributed to 300 growers - large and small. These growers are feeding back information on blight resistance, but also information on taste, yield and other variables to the SPUDS organisation, headed up by Kaethe Burt-O Dea.
This innovative, very cost effective initiative is especially important for organic growers as they have few tools with which to combat blight. And 2012 was an especially tough year.
Moreover, the UK's Sarvari Research Trust, which has developed varieties like the Sarpos (Mira and Axona) is in serious financial difficulty at present. Even collective pre orders from growers would help the organisation continue.
Many of the growers for SPUDS are smaller, back garden growers like Burt-O Dea herself. “I planted 400 grams of Blue Danube seed potato and got 20kg back. The foliage did get some blight, but the tubers didn't” she tells me. “The foliage wasn't trimmed, I left it and it didn't progress down. I'm still eating them, and I haven't refrigerated them”.
The preliminary survey results coming back, she says, also point to the fact that the consumer seems to want a variety of potatoes: people don't want dry flowery spuds all the time.
“People didn't like the Rooster here at first, the Golden Wonder used to be king. It was so dry most people ate it with an awful lot of butter. People do seem to want different types of spud for different times of year for different purposes.”
Burt-O Dea is hoping to expand the trial and also get more survey replies back from people who participated in the 2012 growing season.
“I'm hoping to be able to help source field scale quantities from the Sarvari Trust for larger scale growers to trial” she says.
In County Clare the Irish Seed Savers have had good blight resistance and taste success with the Tibet variety, though the quantities available to commercial organic growers are very small.
While Burt-O Dea says that some large scale growers have had some success in growing with these blight resistant varieties, many commercial organic growers nevertheless found 2012 to be an extraordinarily difficult year for potatoes.
Jenny McNally, from County Dublin,sells at three of the larger farmers' markets in Dublin.
With some low lying and wet patches to begin with, 2012 was inevitably a bad year for her potato crop.
“I grew the varieties Sarpo Axona, Charlotte, Orla and Setanta” she tells me. “It was the wrong
year to think about growing though! Setanta had a great flavour, but the tonnage was down. For a good year, we'd get 8 tonnes to the acre, but it was more like 5 to 6 last year. The Axona didn't perform, but it was in a wetter patch. Orla we lost to blight, Charlotte worked, it was an early salad potato. The blight in the leaves was trimmed back and it was fine.”
She continues:“The year before Axona worked out great as a late main”.
Tom Keogh contracts Offaly's Philip Draper to grow the organic potatoes he sells. Sarpo Mira, Sarpo Axona and Bionica worked really well up until last year, but last year was very difficult. The damp moist summer wiped them out”
You often hear the refrain "more research is needed" from well funded academics who maintain the business-as-usual model of farming and food production - you know the one - the one that's an input heavy, expensive, needs to be bailed out more often than a toxic bank and has lots of environmentally destructive elements. (10,000 word paper by yours truly outlining the case at previous link)
Well, organisations like the Sarvari Trust and the Irish Seed Savers survive on very little and cannot get anywhere near the more research is needed point at academic conferences - they are in survival mode. With investments they can make the kinds of developments we've seen with the Tibet potato. You can contribute in any number of ways, just follow the links....
For more on the SPUDS research, including a survey you can fill in on your potato growing year, go to desireland.ie, or ring Kaethe on 087 2444185