Present the notion of "potato as art" to an organic farmer and watch a broad, knowing smile spread across his face. What was once viewed as a utilitarian, humble vegetable is now haute cuisine and high art. Colors range from deep purple, red and pale pink to tawny browns.
This is high season for the potato as art. Pitchforks pushed deep into the rich silty-clay loam of central Illinois emerge brimming with tubers, soil still clinging to the moist skins.
Present the notion of "potato as art" to an organic farmer and watch a broad, knowing smile spread across his face.
What was once viewed as a utilitarian, humble vegetable is now haute cuisine and high art. Colors range from deep purple, red and pale pink to tawny browns. Shapes vary from svelte French fingers to robust, portly spheres.
There are Brian and Anita Poeppel's Yukon Gold, Kennebec and Red Norland. Lawrence Meyer has Mountain Rose, and Lyndon Hartz has All Blue, among others.
Bill Davison has French Fingerling, Austrian Crescent Fingerling, La Ratte Fingerling, Island Sunshine, Green Mountain, German Butterball, Desiree, Satina and Russet Burbank.
In addition to those varieties, Anne Patterson has Charlotte, Early Rose, Carola and Rose Finn Fingerling.
A dry, starchy baker no longer defines the genre.
"Who doesn't love potatoes?" said Patterson, owner of Living Earth Farm and member of Good Earth Food Alliance.
"Potatoes in our daughter's school lunch? Oh, absolutely!" said Anita Poeppel one Thursday morning while walking back to the farmhouse after digging some of the season's first potatoes from her organic field.
"When we have leftover oven-roasted potatoes, I pack them in Lucy's school lunch, maybe with yogurt or apple butter for dipping. Kids love to dip. Her lunches always have real food," said Poeppel who owns and works Broad Branch Farm with her husband.
Every year the Colorado potato beetle tortures central Illinois organic farmers. The Poeppels pick them off by hand and are grateful for the beneficial insects that keep the potato beetle population in check.
Davison takes to his potato field with tennis rackets, gently hitting each plant so the beetles fall into a tray of soapy water.
The Poeppels sell potatoes primarily through their CSA, community-supported agriculture.
"People go nuts over our fresh-dug potatoes," Poeppel said. "The texture is so firm. It's like cutting a fresh clove of garlic versus one that sat around all winter. Fresh-dug potatoes are bursting with life."
Her husband said, "I never knew potatoes could taste like this."
The Poeppel family likes potatoes prepared every way from simple oven-roasted potatoes to a special potato leek soup and potatoes fried in fat from their grass-fed cattle.
"Potatoes are good and simple. Boiled or steamed, drizzled with a fruity olive oil and fresh dill. Amazing!" said Poeppel. "When food is this good, it's best to keep it simple."
When the Poeppels first starting farming on their land north of Princeville, there were no earthworms. Years of conventional farming with chemicals had killed worms and microorganisms in the soil.
They started a rotation between produce, chickens, fallow fields and cattle grazing. They amend and enrich the soil with plant residue.
"I thought the earthworms would be back that first year. They weren't," Brian Poeppel said. "We saw some the second year and a lot the third year. Now every shovel of soil has earthworms."
The Poeppels leave their potatoes in the ground, digging as needed. By the end of their year, they dig the remaining potatoes and store them through winter.
Kennebec and Yukon Gold store especially well through winter. People often stock up in autumn and store potatoes in a cool basement or garage that's kept at a steady 50 to 55 degrees.
The Poeppels sell their potatoes for $3 a pound. It's a labor intensive crop. They planted 500 pounds of seed potatoes this spring in three, 270-foot rows and expect a harvest of more than 2,000 pounds.
"We usually don't end up with many extra potatoes," Anita Poeppel said.
Jeremy House, who farms in Sheffield at Meadow Haven Organic Farm, said, "If you buy just one thing organic, make it potatoes. A conventional crop is treated 14 times with chemicals. The soil is fumigated with chemicals. Potatoes are a root crop, so those chemicals are not good."
Fred Jones, an artist and potato grower on his farm outside Macomb, said potatoes are often viewed as lowly vegetables, but "they represent a sequence that is life. There is a symbolic meaning in potatoes. They can make us more aware of other aspects of life."
The potato as art? Jones said it's worth pondering the notion.
Clare Howard can be reached at (309) 686-3250 or email@example.com.