Growing Nooksak

🕔Jul 16, 2009
by Mary MacDonald

Potatoes have intrigued me for a long time, with their abundant nutritional value and hearty substance that can carry one through a cold northern winter. A cold storage room stocked with spuds is comforting in this part of the world as the months grow colder.

Today, I am visiting with local potato farmer John Ryser in his yard south of Prince George, amidst rustic farm shacks and antiquated machinery. He tells me about his beginnings as a six-year-old gardener in the 1930s in his parents’ garden just west of Prince George. Within a couple of years, his potato crops were outshining his father’s, he says, and a potato grower was born. Speaking with him today, I begin to understand just how complicated the story of the BC spud has become since his start as a potato grower 70 years ago.

John’s unending supply of potatoes at the Prince George farmers’ market certainly piqued my interest. He is a registered seed potato grower, only his name does not appear in the most recent British Columbia seed potato directory, he says, because of the increasing costs of being a member of this group. Since starting as a grower so many years ago, John has found that the business of growing seed potatoes has become increasingly more expensive and bureaucratic.

He shows me the impressive list of potatoes he single-handedly cultivates on three-and-a-half acres (sometimes picking them by hand), a significant reduction from the 14 acres he used to work each year. Despite this reduction, he has increasing difficulty finding a market for his spuds since the advent of big chain stores in the local area. Whereas the 1950s through to the 1970s saw him selling to local restaurants, grocery stores and wholesalers, nowadays he mostly sells seed potatoes to gardening stores who in turn sell to small-time gardeners. He used to sell to other potato farmers, but within the last couple of years, the last such buyer died.

With every passing year, fewer people grow seed potatoes and the land under cultivation for them in the province has dropped significantly. Some people have simply stopped growing potatoes and seed potatoes because of additional expenses and regulations that have increased over the years. Commercial farms in the Prince George area are also in decline, he tells me, and those who do continue to grow have difficulty finding a market for all of their produce.

The potato bureaucracy
Commercial seed potato growers can only plant seed potatoes that are included on a list of registrable potatoes which, with every passing year, excludes more and more heritage potatoes that are often best suited to local climates. John can list off the potatoes that grow best in this climate and he is still growing most of them.

But he is going to lose one of the best: the Nooksak. This potato, he says, has special significance in this area because of our longer winters and the Nooksak’s outstanding storage properties. It is disease-resistant, and will not turn to mush when cooked, he adds.
As far as he knows, he is the only current registered grower of the Nooksak in all of Canada, and there lies the problem and the reason for its impending demise. As of next year, according to the registered potato system, John will not be allowed to continue growing his Nooksak variety.

For the past three decades, the federal Seeds Regulation has set out the seed potato ranking system for Canada, all determined by how many years a certified potato grower has grown a particular spud. Once a given type has been cultivated for seven years, a grower must purchase new seed from another registered Canadian grower. But in the case of John Ryser’s Nooksaks there is no such other grower to be found.

As the number of registered potato growers dwindles, so too do the types of seed potatoes available in the market. John has already lost a number of types of seed potatoes when he could not find other growers of a particular variety.

The federal government’s Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Vancouver Research Station used to save heritage seed potato plants on site, but John tells me the station closed in 1996. Since then, the business of registering seed potatoes has been privatized.

Now, to remain a registered seed potato grower, he sends potato samples each year to a private company, Phyto Diagnositcs, in North Saanich, where they check his specimens for ring rot. If they find rot, that variety is out, and the whole farm will be shut down for an extensive period of time until the rot is removed. If John does not send in samples yearly and pay hundreds of dollars to have them tested, he will lose his grower’s licence, and he will no longer be allowed to sell seed potatoes.

Diminishing variety
He knows of no lab nowadays where heritage potatoes are kept. He believes it has become a liability issue for private labs to have these potatoes on site.

When I ask John if I can play a part in keeping the Nooksak going for this area in my small city lot, he warns that growing potatoes involves “keeping a sharp eye” for diseases such as witches broom, black leg, leaf roll and aster yellows and, of course, ring rot. Never put potato or tomato plants into the compost, he advises me, and he stresses the importance of rotating potato crops.

He says he can look at any potato and in a moment tell you exactly what is wrong with it. I look down at his blackened, soil-hardened hands, and somehow I believe him. I realize I am not going to learn 70 years of potato-growing wisdom in the space of one conversation.

Standing here talking to John, I am mindful that his potatoes are just one piece of what is happening to our food supply. Various local food production enterprises, including at least one egg farm, have shut down around Prince George in recent years. Control over the food we eat becomes more centralized and genetic diversity shrinks with each passing year. In John’s case, part of the story has to do with strict government regulation aimed at controlling quality of commercial seed potatoes, but another part has to do with younger people’s disinterest in taking up large-scale potato farming in this part of the province. The local market does not exist as it once did, so the incentive for growing potatoes here is much diminished.

As I drive Highway 97 back to Prince George, I think about John, his 70 years of potato growing knowledge, and the hardy potatoes he has nurtured for so many years. They are all on the verge of becoming no more than a fading memory of yesteryear farming, and somehow it makes me feel unsettled. I will do what I can for the Nooksak in my small city garden.