Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Alaska Frostless potato travels to the other end of the world

Alison and Tom Short sort potatoes.
Andrez and Alison Short and their son Tom are a typical farming family living in a windswept, difficult land, rainy and hilly but undeniably beautiful. They raise sheep, as many farmers in the Falkland Islands do, but want to improve the food security of their homeland and have called on help from farmers on the other side of the world, in Alaska. Andrez Short focused on potatoes as his means of independence: Short estimates that 80 percent of all potatoes eaten there must be imported.

The potatoes begin to thrive in the the poly tunnels.
The Falklands have highly acidic soils, although the Shorts' farm is somewhat less acidic than normal and are subject to unseasonable frosts, so any potato grown there must be able to withstand light, unseasonal frost. Fortunately, just such a potato was developed by the Alaska Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Its defining characteristic is that it will tough it out to temperatures as low as 28˚F (-2.2˚C). Dr. Curtis Dearborn, research horticulturalist for AFES for many years, began researching a frost-resistant potato in 1955 and released Alaska Frostless in 1969. According to Agroborealis, the potato was heralded as having great promise:
The capacity of a potato to survive light nighttime frosting can mean a lot in Alaska where it is not uncommon for frost-susceptible varieties to be killed in mid August. If Alaska Frostless grows in other potato regions as it does in Alaska, it would add measurably to the world food supply. West Pakistan has just recently requested and received 50 of Alaska Frostless. —Agroborealis, October 1970
Kurt Wold, owner of Pingo Farm/Zone 1 Grown, maintains many varieties of potatoes and Short, after a year of hunting on the Internet for someone who grew the ideal potato, ran across an article in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner by Nancy Tarnai about Wold and the many varieties of vegetables he grows—including Alaska Frostless. According to Wold, one of the potatoes useful qualities is that it is also slow to sprout, making it a good keeper.

Frost-nipped Alaska Frostless survives the cold, even if it doesn't like it.
Short ordered 4 kilograms (8.8 pounds) of potatoes via DHL. Getting his import permit required a considerable bit of paper signing, as the government of the Falklands is quite mindful of the potential for invasion by disease. The potatoes arrived in October, and, true to type, took a while to sprout. "I have planted some outside as a trial but we are having a very cold summer," Short wrote in January, "so these are very slow."

Harvest was at the very beginning of May, with the first frosts, and the Shorts pulled in a respectable amount from the ground: 13.3 kg (29.3 lb) of seed size, 28.9 kg (63.7 lb) of eating size, and 4.7 kg (10.4 lb) of small ones. Andrez Short writes that most of these came from inside their poly tunnels and will be used for seed potatoes for next year and in experiments for planting at different times and locales. They won't need to order seed potatoes next year.

The potatoes planted outside the tunnels suffered two frosts and on both occasions only lost about 50 percent of their leaves, said Short. He was very pleased with their performance, especially given the short growing season and the cold summer.

Washed potatoes drying. 

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