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Bodega Land Trust

Bodega Potatoes

by Michael Presley

The rich sandy loam soils surrounding the Bodega area have raised many a potato. The local potato's historical roots go back to early Russian settlers and through every wave of immigration. They have been grown as garden favorites, family food staple, market-garden cash crop or in large commercial operations. Bodega potatoes were usually dry-farmed, using no irrigation but, rather, skillful and timely tillage and sowing techniques.

In l859, "60,000 sacks of potatoes were shipped from Bodega," cites an old Petaluma newspaper. Today there are enough local potato stories to write a book, yet there remains no substantial amount of local potato growing. Successes and failures weave a jagged history of bounty and busts which leave us today with at least hope for renewed local production. Anne Greenfield and I decided to dig up some of the local history, with regard to potatoes, and talked with three local growers and their families. We are grateful to Bodega residents Ed and Columbina Albini, Gary and Vicki Watts (with memories of Victor Fomasi) and Louis Albini for their time and good recollections.

For Ed and Columbina Albini potato growing goes back to l938. Cultivating the 2-3 acres around their house they have been able to move the potato patch around to fresh productive ground each year. Ed starts spading trenches in February and March, then plants when frost is gone -- usually April -- and always "by the dark of the moon." Ed fertilizes with weed-free steer manure, cultivates the two feet between rows and hills the plants up well to keep the young tubers from sunburn. Gophers are always a problem; even with trapping or baiting they claim about l5% of the crop. Columbina remembers her uncle in northern Italy planting three potatoes in a triangle: "one for the gopher, one for the bugs, one for us!"

The Albini's winter supply of potatoes are dug in September, fully ripe, and stored in a pile in a dry, cold, dark shed. Favorite planting varieties have been the British Queen, Burbank Russet, White Rose and Bodega Red. Columbina loves the versatility of the potato: "good for breakfast, lunch or dinner!" and her favored style is cube-fries with salt, pepper and herb seasoning for special occasions. Fava beans and saffron crocus are also usual to the Albini garden. Plants are never sprayed: "if you spray them you're afraid to eat." The Albini's still grow potatoes every year and like to try new varieties.

Many Bodega area residents remember Victor Fomasi's potato fields and sacks of potatoes for sale just northeast of town. Victor passed away a couple of years ago but his daughter Vicki remembers some 30 years of potato growing summers. Over the past two decades Gary Watts (Vicki's husband) worked the fields with Victor, discing, plowing, harrowing and rolling, until the texture fully met Victor's approval.

Planting of Bodega Red, LaSoda Red, Burbank Russet and White Rose varieties was done during the week before a new moon, during May or even June, due to late frosts. Black Beetles, gopher and deer kept Victor busy stalking, trapping, baiting or spraying to protect his crop; the yield, however, was often six barn bins full (each l0xl0)-- "lots of l00lb. sacks." Vicki attests to how dusty it would get during the harvesting and sorting days.

Gary realized how much Victor knew, when he (Gary) went to carry on the family tradition the year after Victor died; he learned the intricacies of pest control and seed selection for the old potato planter (originally horse-drawn, now pulled with a field tractor). An old harvesting machine and the help of neighbors combined to bring in the potatoes just before the first rains.

The whole Watts' family enjoys eating potatoes fried and mashed, but Vicki and Gary remember the big pot of dry bean soup - full of kidney beans, spuds, onions and pasta - eaten with sausage, as one of Dad's favorite meals.

Louis Albini saw western Sonoma County potato production in its prime. During the war years (l94l-l945) his family grew certified seed potatoes for a major grower in Bakersfield. "They wanted as many potatoes as we could grow" so pasture parcels from Salmon Creek to Tomales Bay sprung into production. The White Rose was predominantly grown but Pontiac, LaSoda and British Queen were popular in the San Francisco markets. Louis recalls a particularly good patch off Salmon Creek which yielded 6000 sacks from 30 acres -- that's l0 ton/acre; a lot of good food! Late rains combined with a rich soil, a warm and wind-protected site, and timely fertilizer application to bring such a good harvest. Louis confides that the only time they really made any money from growing potatoes was growing them for seed.

We thank the families who offered their stories and hope the information will help someone along the potato-growing path. Of all cultivated crops, potatoes are the best calorie and carbohydrate producer per square foot of land. Growing them can be like a low-stakes gamble with some pretty shady characters (gophers) at the table, but the prize is worth it. The freshest, creamiest and tastiest potatoes come from the ground we live on! Do we really want to get all our potatoes from Washington and Idaho? Have a good growing year in '96!


Bodega Land Trust is a tax-exempt 501(c) 3 organization.
All donations are tax deductible.

Bodega Land Trust
P.O. Box 254, Bodega, CA. 94922
call (707) 876-1806 or (707) 876-3422 for info.
member: Land Trust Alliance

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