Posted on Wed, June 17, 2009 by Jerusha Klemperer
5 Comments | Categories: Biodiversity, Farms and Farming,
By Slow Food USA Biodiversity Intern Regina Fitzsimmons
You may already know about the project in Sonoma County to save the Sebastopol Gravenstein apple. But, in upcoming years, a new project is going to hit California farms and backyards.
When Elissa Rubin-Mahon, a member of Slow Food Sonoma County, heard rumored stories of Bodega Reds growing in her California neck of the woods, she didnt rest until she uncovered the full history. The Bodega Red, according to folklore, was brought by a Peruvian to Sonoma County where it grew near the coast in Bodega. Sonoma County was once the potato capital of Californiatheres even a California sandbar named after the Bodega Red and a lookout named Spud Point. But after some time, the Bodega Red started falling off the map. Genetically similar potatoes, like the Burbank, even died out. The Burbank became extinct because of potato blight and infestations of viruses. And, not helping matters, Elissa discovered that growers used to eat and sell the high quality potatoes, and plant the worst ones, thus propagating genetically weaker and weaker potatoes.
Elissa was especially intrigued by the Bodega Red because it was one of five or six potatoes introduced to the United States directly from the potato motherland: South America. Most potatoes sailed to Europe where they were grown and eaten and then sent to North America during the time of European colonization. Bodega Reds didnt make that extra boat ride. Like the Makah Ozette potato, they made their way all the way up the West Coast and into Alaska.
So, about five years ago, Elissa started hunting for Bodega Red leads around her community. After a few dead-end internet searches and a smattering of Bodega references on microfilm newspaper records at the Sonoma County Public Library, Elissa hit the neighborhood roads and started contacting people. At first, she received no responses. The community quietly protected the Bodega Red. Many families in Elissas community have lived there for generations, so Elissaa 30-year residentwas a newcomer by comparison. Finally, a year after she began her search, a gardener came forward, anonymously, with three to four pea-sized potatoes from his or her backyard. A little while later, a genetic test proved that these potatoes werent just red potatoes growing in Bodega, but they were in fact, the Bodega Reds!
Now that the discovery has been made, its time for the restoration projects to begin. But before Slow Food Sonoma County can start handing out packets of seeds to farmers and gardeners, it is necessary to clean up the potatoes and make the seeds virus free by regenerating the potato tissue culture in a lab. Members of Elissas community were initially concerned with the idea of cleaning up the seed, fearing genetic tampering. So, in the spirit of sharing information and good food, Elissa cooked up a hefty pot of the recently restored Petaluma Gold Rush Beans and brought the beans to a big dinner. While the community gathered and broke bread, the Bodega Land Trust presented information about the process of genetic clean-up. This event brought everyone on board.
It will probably be two to three more years before Sonoma County will have enough seed stock to start the Bodega Red revival process. In the meantime, Sonoma County Slow Food members will keep busy showcasing Ark foods at community dinners and talking up the potato. Elissa plans to nominate it to the Ark of Taste this fall so more people can learn about it and get excited to grow and taste it once seeds are ready to share.
To learn more about the chapters upcoming activities, click here.
photo of Slow Food Sonoma County-North by Lisa Hunter