One legend has it that the potato reverently lifted its eye to the crown via Sir Walter Raleigh whose colonists found it in this section of North Carolina. The more likely account is that when Cortez and Pizarro conquered Mexico and Peru for their gold and silver, they found the natives eating tubers from which our modern potatoes descended. They were carried back to Spain and spread to Italy, Holland, and other countries. In 1563, more than 20 years before the attempted colonization at Roanoke Island, the English sea-captain John Hawkins brought the first potato specimen to the British Isles from south America. Some claim that civilized cultivation of the potato began when a slave trader introduced it in Ireland to avert a famine and by 1688 it had become the staple food of Irish peasantry.
The potato is more universally grown than any other food crop. Our potato is a member of the large and interesting nightshade family, which gives us tobacco as well as foods like tomato, eggplant and red pepper and flowers like the petunia. The poisonous substance found in potato berries and leaves may, if developed in the tubers, cause them to turn green from exposure to light. The plant stores up nutriment in the fleshy tubers, which are underground stems. Though not common with our cultivated varieties, the small white or purplish flowers under certain conditions may form a soft, green berry full of seed, which is a normal procedure with their wild ancestors in their original habitat.
How Potatoes Grow
The potato is different from many vegetables because it flowers above the ground and fruits below the ground. The plant is not commonly grown from seed but from pieces of the tuber saved from a previous crop. Each piece must have one or two buds, or eyes for a plant to sprout and develop. Tubers grown on farms in "seed" producing states are stored in climate controlled warehouses and shipped to North Carolina growers in January and February. All bags of "seed potatoes" must be inspected by government inspectors who screen out infectious diseases such as the devastating late blight fungus. Potato seed pieces sprout, break through the soil and grow into potato plants that attain lengths of almost 3 feet with pointed leaves and white to purple flowers. The ends of its underground stems, or stolons enlarge to form a few to more than 20 tubers of various shapes and sized depending on the variety.
Planting and Harvesting
At planting time, which usually begins the third week of February in North Carolina's coastal plain, the seed potatoes are put through a cutting machine. The tubers are then dusted with a fungicide and put into V-bottom trucks that transport them to planters in the fields. Seed pieces are planted about six inches deep, one every nine inches, in rows about three feet apart. Tubers do best in loose loamy soils or black and muck soils with adequate drainage and an acid pH or 5.4 on average. When the soil temperature reaches 55 degrees the seed pieces will begin to sprout. In about five weeks the first leaflets unfold above the ground. Depending on the variety, 90-110 days from planting are required to bear a crop. Harvest season in north Carolina normally begins around June 5th and lasts through mid August. Favorable conditions to dig potatoes are when soils are dry. Potato diggers are pulled up and down the fields by tractors. The diggers have flat, pointed shovels that go beneath the potatoes to lift them out of the ground. The potatoes are carried through the digger by conveyors that consist of steel rods that let dirt fall through. Towards the back of the digger the potatoes fall through onto a side chain while the lighter vines are left in the field. The potatoes are carried by a slightly elevated conveyor to be dumped into a V-bottom truck driving alongside the digger. The trucks transport the potatoes to a packing and grading shed where they are run through a water flume to be washed, and carried by conveyor belts to be graded. The potatoes are either loaded onto bulk trucks for transport to potato chip processing plants, or are bagged in paper mesh or poly bags and delivered to grocery chains. Potatoes grown in North Carolina are never stored. They may arrive in grocery stores within 48 hours of being dug. North Carolina potato growers take pride in saying their potatoes can be used Everyday...in Every way. Their summer harvested potatoes are great baked, boiled, or fried.