Farm to Fryer: Potatoes in NE Florida
A customary lunch consists of a sandwich, soup, sub or salad, plus a starchy sidekick dusted with salt—like potato chips or fries. Next time you pop one of those crispy snacks into your mouth, chew on this: The main ingredient may have originated from the sandy soil of Northeast Florida.
St. Johns, Putnam and Flagler counties — which comprise the Tri-County Agricultural Area—grow and harvest some 20,000 acres of potatoes each year. About 60% to 70% of the farms produce myriad varieties that are processed for major commercial chip brands such as Frito-Lay, Cape Cod and Snyder’s. According to University of Florida-St. Johns County Extension, Florida ranks seventh in the nation for potato production, and second for its spring potato crop harvest.
“Potatoes are such an important part of the Tri-County Agricultural Area,” says Bonnie Wells, commercial agriculture agent for UF St. Johns County Extension.
Northeast Florida’s roots in potato growing stem from the late 19th century, when the development of Florida’s railroad system helped accelerate the region’s potato shipping to northern markets. By 1901, the Hastings area shipped 43,000 bushels of Irish potatoes and 23,000 bushels of sweet potatoes annually and had earned a reputation as the “Potato Capital of Florida.” Now, approximately 40 area farms grow potatoes, including Riverdale Potato Farm in Elkton, which dedicates its 1,000 acres to growing specially formulated varieties specifically for Frito-Lay. A year’s worth of soil preparation and planting is folded around the field’s six-week spring windfall.
“Most of our potatoes are the Atlantic variety. We dig them up, put them on the truck and they’re in potato chip bags within 36 hours,” says farm manager Bryan Jones. “The sugar content is just right, which makes the frying easy and the taste delicious.”
The University of Florida is spearheading efforts to diversify its potato varieties. Each year, the university grows and tests about 1,400 kinds, which are modified for various reasons, from maximizing density to increasing starch content. Sweet potatoes are also gaining ground, both within the institution’s greenhouse and at some local farms, like fourth-generation Blue Sky Farms in Elkton.
“Sweet potatoes are a recent exciting story because they allow us to take advantage of the summer and fall growing seasons, and they provide more income for farmers,” says David Bearl, a chef with UF Extension.
The tuberous spuds from Blue Sky Farms add a pop of color and flavor to the artisan fries served daily at Rype & Readi Golf Bistro in Elkton, which sources produce from its own farm market and other neighboring growers when available and in season. The eatery stuffs paper-lined plastic baskets with fried strings of purple and orange potatoes, which are then double-fried, Belgian-style.
“We are passionate about using fresh local ingredients,” says operating partner Jean-Sebastien Gros. “Our fries are so popular, we’re thinking about developing a new line of our business.”