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An Underground Love Affair

Show spuds some affection this February

January-February 2024

Virginia potato farmers typically plant spuds in March for harvest in July and August.

by Nicole Zema, Virginia Farm Bureau Federation

Roasted, baked, fried or mashed; smothered in gravy or chilled for a summer salad, potatoes are a nutrient-rich vegetable with endless culinary versatility. February is National Potato Lovers Month — an opportunity to learn more about the world’s fourth-largest food crop.

While potatoes are not ranked among the top Virginia vegetable crops, nine growers on the Eastern Shore produce roughly 90% of the state’s tubers on 4,000 acres. These potatoes generate upward of $20 million in annual sales.

The Eastern Shore’s sandy loam soil and temperate climate are ideal for growing perfect potatoes, says Ursula Tankard Deitch, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent in Northampton County.

Unlike clay soils, there is more space between soil particles, so water can filtrate instead of pooling on the crop, which helps the tubers grow. Plus, Deitch explains, spuds like it warm, but not too warm.

“The Eastern Shore stays a little warmer in the wintertime compared to the rest of the state,” she says.

Virginia potato farmers typically plant spuds in March for harvest in July and August.

While grains like soybeans and corn are produced on greater acreage and therefore gross more in sales, potatoes are the Eastern Shore’s largest vegetable crop, Deitch adds.

“We have a long history in the potato business on the Eastern Shore,” says Accomack County grain and vegetable farmer David Hickman, whose family has been growing potatoes on Dublin Farms since the 1880s. Hickman represents the Eastern Shore on the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation’s board of directors, and he chairs the VFBF Specialty Crops Advisory Committee.

The farms’ potato varieties — round white, red, purple and yellow flesh — are sold mostly in supermarkets. Some grocery chains have initiated buy-local programs in response to consumer interest in local produce, Hickman says. “Our potato bags say ‘Horntown, Virginia’ on them, while most of the bags in stores don’t have an identifying area,” he says. “In our first year selling to Walmart, their potato sales increased significantly, which reflects consumer desire to know where their produce comes from.”

So how does a lifelong grower like his potatoes?

“Mashed with gravy,” Hickman says. “But I like them, any way. They’re nutritious — a good source of vitamins and minerals. If you don’t load them down with high-calorie condiments, they are pretty healthy for you!”