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History of the Potato

The potato has been a bigger part of world history than most people might realize.  It’s one of the most important agricultural crops worldwide, accounting for 368 million tons produced.  It’s considered the 5th most important agricultural crop worldwide, behind corn, wheat, sugar cane, and rice, and the most important non-grain food product on earth.  Despite the importance, the potato seldom gets the fanfare it deserves, other than the occasional joke, anecdotal stories and a few nursery rhymes.

Well, those of us who work in the potato industry tend to think a little different than most people.  At Potandon Produce, everyone is a “potato person” or an “onion person,” and there is a wealth of untapped potato trivia, history, and even a joke or two you might not have heard about the perennial Solanum tuberosum, or the common potato.  Let’s take a trip back in time to see how the potato began, how it evolved, and what it meant to the world along the way and hopefully you’ll learn enough to call yourself a “potato person” too.

The earliest accounts known of potatoes being cultivated date back to the Incan Indians in Peru sometime between 8000 BC and 5000 BC in the High Andes Mountains.  There are some who speculate that potatoes grew in the wild as far back as 10,000 BC. But, since record-keeping usually took a back seat to more important things like food, shelter, and water, we’ll never know the exact year, it’s enough to say that potatoes go back a long way.  The Incas were also the first dehydrators and they preserved their potatoes for storage by dehydrating and mashing them into a substance they named chuñu.  Chuñu could be stored for up to a decade, providing the local community with insurance in case of natural disaster.

With the arrival of the Spanish Conquistador’s in 1532, the Peruvian potato was about to make history.  While searching for gold, the Spanish employed Incan men as miners, and observed them eating chuñu.  As time passed, they adopted chuñu as part of their ships provisioning and they took them back to Spain on return voyages over the next 40 years.  Some Spanish farmers cultivated potatoes as livestock feed.  From Spain, potatoes slowly spread to Italy and other European countries during the late 1500’s but the amount of suspicion and contempt for the potato was evident everywhere in Europe since its origins were from a heathen society.

Sailors saw the value in potatoes and cultivated them along the coastlines, and in turn carried them to ports around the known world, where they became a food source for the starving and destitute.  Most of the sol-called civilized people considered potatoes to be unfit for human consumption. Wealthy landowners in northern Europe would grow potatoes in botanical gardens as an exotic novelty. Even very poor peasants refused to eat from a plant that produced something as ugly as a potato. Others felt that the potato plant's resemblance to plants in the nightshade family hinted that it was the creation of evil spirits meant to poison them and their families.

The late 1600’s and early 1700’s saw changes take place in the world which would be very impactful.  Sir Walter Raleigh, known courtier, explorer, soldier, and writer introduced potatoes to Ireland in 1589 on the 40,000 acres of land near Cork.  Across the Atlantic, the tuber was first introduced to the American colonies when the British governor of the Bahamas sent a gift box of Solanum tuberosum to the governor of the colony of Virginia.  Although they did not really catch on until the later part of the 1700’s the potato was there to stay in the good old USA.  In most of Europe, the upper classes and educated people saw the potential of the potato and began encouraging the growing of potatoes.  Despite the upper classes leading the information drive, potatoes did not become a staple until the food shortages associated with the Revolutionary War.

The first permanent potato patches in North America were established in 1719, most likely near Londonderry, NH, by Scotch-Irish immigrants.  From there, the crop spread across the country.  The Irish also had accepted the potato as a regular part of their diet by the early 1700’s where the local people who had previously used oats as their main food source diversified.  The wet and warm Irish climate was very favorable to potato farming and the isolation of the island kept many devastating insects away from their fields.   By the late 1700’s the early distrust of the potato was dispelled for good.  In France, the potato was given the royal seal of approval and Louis XVI began to sport a potato flower in his buttonhole and Marie-Antoinette wore the purple potato blossom in her hair.

Frederick the Great of Prussia saw the potato's potential, but when faced the challenge of overcoming the people's prejudice against the plant, used a bit of reverse psychology.  He had his servants plant a royal field of potatoes and stationed a heavy guard around it to “protect it from thieves.”  The local peasants naturally assumed that anything worth guarding was worth stealing, and so they snuck into the field and snatched the plants for their home gardens. Of course, this “stealing by the commoners” was entirely in line with Frederick's wishes.  Fredrick was a “potato person.”

Catherine the Great of the Russian Empire ordered her subjects to begin cultivating potatoes, but many of her subjects ignored this order, as the Orthodox Church, which argued that potatoes were suspect because they were not mentioned in the Bible.  Potatoes were not widely cultivated in Russia until 1850, when Czar Nicholas I began to enforce Catherine's order to combat hunger.

As the population of Europe grew, famine and hunger were common and the realization that the land mass was not large enough to feed everyone was apparent.  The grain based agricultural model left as much as half of the land not planted or fallow each year to recover.  Landowners found that potatoes worked great as a rotational crop and with no weather issues would almost double the food supply in terms of pure calories.  For the first time in centuries, a definitive solution to the ongoing food shortage had revealed itself.  The stigma of the potato was gone forever.  By the end of the century some countries relied on potatoes for up to 25% of their total food supply and in Ireland it was over 40%.

Aside from curbing hunger, highly nutritious potatoes also helped mitigate the effects of such diseases as scurvy, tuberculosis, measles and dysentery, resulting in higher birth rates and lower mortality rates.  Historians often debate whether potatoes were a cause of the tremendous population or simply an effect that supported it.  Nevertheless, wherever the potato traveled, populations boomed.  Just as an example, between 1801 and 1851, England and Wales experienced an unprecedented population explosion, their combined population doubled from 9 to 18 million citizens.

In Ireland, the potato's high yields allowed even the poorest farmers to produce more healthy food than they needed with scarcely any investment or hard labor. Historians talk of people who were remarkable healthy where potatoes typically supplied appetizer, dinner and dessert.  The Irish were “potato people” of the highest order.  Many Irish survived on milk and potatoes alone — the two together provide all essential nutrients — while others subsisted on potatoes and water, or a little cabbage and salt. By the early 1840s, almost one-half of the Irish population had become entirely dependent upon the potato, specifically on just one or two high-yielding varieties.  From 1845 to 1852, the Irish potato production was ravaged by blight. How and when the blight Phytophthora infestans arrived is still uncertain but its effects were cataclysmic to the Irish people.

Blight accounted for crop loss of anywhere from one third to one half of all acreages planted in 1845.  Three quarters of the crop was lost in 1846.  Seed potatoes were scarce for many years following these two devastating years, limiting the recovery.  History tells us that over one million people died of starvation during the famine and many thousands left Ireland forever to settle in America.  Despite the tragedy, the potato remained the staple crop of Ireland after the famine.

Unlike their European counterparts, Americans did not subject the potato to any class distinctions, so its popularity here grew rapidly. In 1806 the American Gardener's Calendar included only one variety of potato but by 1848 that number grew to almost one hundred.  By 1860, American output of potatoes was calculated at 100 million bushels, 90 percent produced by the northern states, with New York the single largest producer, followed by Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maine. Idaho, the present-day largest producer of potatoes, actually did not begin growing potatoes until 1836.

A major step forward in potato cultivation was made in 1872 when the botanist Luther Burbank discovered that the Early Rose potato produced a seed ball, and he was able to breed plants with larger potatoes whose yield sometimes doubled or tripled that of its parent. The resulting progeny became known as the Burbank potato, now commonly called the “Idaho” potato.

The healthy effect of potatoes was a common thread here as it was in Europe.  Potatoes were a cheap, nutritious, and convenient way to feed farmhands and families. During the Alaskan Klondike gold rush (1897–1898), potatoes were at times almost worth their weight in gold, so valued for their vitamin C that desperate miners traded gold for them.

French Fries were introduced to the U.S. when Thomas Jefferson served them in the White House during his Presidency of 1801-1809. The royal chef for French King Louis Phillipe unintentionally created soufflés (or puffed) potatoes by plunging already fried potatoes into extremely hot oil to reheat them when the King arrived late for dinner one night. To the chef’s surprise and the king’s delight, the potatoes puffed up like little balloons.   Potato Chips were discovered in 1853 when railroad magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt complained that his potatoes were cut too thick and sent them back to the kitchen at a fashionable resort in Saratoga Springs, NY. To spite him, Chef George Crum sliced some potatoes paper thin, fried them in hot oil, salted and served them. Much to everyone’s surprise, Mr. Vanderbilt loved his creation and potato chips have been popular ever since.

The potato industry has seen many changes over the years, with improved irrigation systems, storage facilities, and packing house improvements.  These process changes have been integral in the United States producing a robust crop year after year.  But, sometime during the late 1980’s potato consumption was identified to be in decline domestically.  Some say it was changing eating habits while others say that there was no excitement in potatoes.  Needless to say, the industry needed a spark to turn things around.  That spark came in the form of a new potato variety brought to market just over ten years ago by Potandon Produce called Klondike Rose® - a yellow fleshed red-skinned beauty which is was considered one of the most impactful potato varieties in the last fifty years.  The growers and breeders saw the impact of this potato with consumers and the floodgates opened leading to real change in the marketplace.  New varieties, with bold colors, unique shapes, and smaller sizing hit the shelves and forever changed eating habits. 

The traditional russet and red potatoes are still available but the new unique potatoes are rapidly becoming the potato of choice for many younger people.  We are just scratching the surface in areas such as taste profile, antioxidants, and shelf life on the growing side.  It’s a great time to be a “potato person.”