Posted on Thu, February 02, 2012 by Slow Food USA
7 Comments | Categories: Biodiversity, Slow Food Chapters in Action,
Written by Gerry Warren, Slow Food USA Regional Governor for Washington & Alaska and the coordinator of the Makah Ozette Potato Presidium
In the 1980s an unknown fingerling potato was recognized as a staple in the diet of Pacific Coast Native Americans of the Makah Nation. The Makah occupy the region around Neah Bay, Washington, the most northwesterly point in the lower 48 states. According to tribal lore, the potato had been used by these people for about 200 years. The Makah had named it Ozette after one of their five villages located around Neah Bay. All potatoes originated in South America and it was thought that all potatoes now in the Americas were first taken to Europe by Spaniards before they came to North America. However, in 2004, phylogenetic analysis conducted at Washington State University provided evidence that this potato (Solanum Tu- berosum Group Tuberosum) had certainly been imported directly from South America. How did this happen?
After their conquests in South America, the Spanish began a mission to further establish their empire on the western shores of North America. In the spring of 1791, they established a fort at Neah Bay and, as was the custom, planted a garden that surely included potatoes they had brought directly from South America via Mexico. During the winter of 1791, the Spanish found the weather conditions in the harbor too severe to maintain their ships and they abandoned the fort. The Makah people, who were in need of a carbohydrate source, likely found volunteers of this rather weedy plant left in the garden of the abandoned fort. They quickly adopted the potato and became its stewards, growing it in their backyard gardens. Not until the late 1980s, nearly 200 years later, was the potato grown outside the Makah Nation. The Makah named the potato Ozette and we have named it Makah Ozette to honor their 200 years of stewardship. The firm flesh and creamy texture of this thin-skinned fingerling potato and its unique nutty, earthy flavor are appreciated by home cooks as well as chefs.
The Presidium was established by Slow Food Seattle in partnership with the Makah Nation, Full Circle Farm, Pure Potato (a laboratory and farm which develops and produces potato seed), the USDA Agricultural Research Station in Prosser, WA, and the Seattle chapter of Chefs Collaborative.
The Presidium’s promotional efforts have raised the demand for the potato enough to warrant a significant increase in the production of certified seed (estimated to be 50,000 pounds, around 23 tons, in 2010) by our partner Pure Potato. The number of farmers and home gardeners growing the Makah Ozette Potato has markedly increased with the availability of seed. The potato is prominent at fall farmers’ markets and on restaurant menus in the region.
A major Seattle artisan bakery used some 200,000 pounds, or 90 tons, of these potatoes to create loaves of Makah Ozette Potato Bread, “the best potato bread we have ever produced.” The bakery has vowed to make this bread a feature of their seasonal production as long as the product is available.
In 2010, flooding devastated the growing areas of both the major production crops as well as Pure Potato’s seed crop. Pure Potato had to start again with the three-year process of producing an abundant crop of certified seed potato – a project they had just completed. We are grateful they are willing to do it again.
The Certified Generation program starts with PreNuclear minitubers. These are first grown in “test tube” then planted in the green house. The resulting crop of mini tubers are planted the next year for reproduction in the field and are then classified as Nuclear. The following years they are classified as Generation 1, 2, etc. as long as they remain within the disease parameters specified by the Department of Agriculture.
This Spring Pure Potato will plant 32 pounds of PreNuclear Makah Ozette minitubers in the field. This should yield approximately 30 one hundred pound sacks of Nuclear seed potato. In the spring of 2013 they will plant 16 sacks per acre that will yield 200 sacks per acre.
Next year, 2013, depending on the yield, there may be a limited supply of Nuclear Generation Makah Ozette seed potatoes for sale at $2.00 per pound. The plan is to keep reproducing this variety and increase the volume to meet the needs of all those interested in growing it.
This article originally appeared in the 2011 Slow Food Almanac.