Potatoes aren’t the first things that come to mind when people think of Alaska, but they played a key role in development beginning before Russian occupation in the nineteenth century. The tuber’s ability to tolerate a range of growing conditions, its low rate of spoilage, and its ability to satisfy hunger through high starch and nutrient content all made the potato the ideal vegetable to fuel colonists’ exploration and expansion into vast wilderness.
Potatoes nourished Alaska
The South American potato migrated north along the Pacific Coast as Native peoples, the Spanish, and, ultimately, the Russians traded, fought over, stole, and gifted the roots. After the Russian-American Company found local potatoes already being grown by the Tlingit and Haida people in southeast Alaska, the vegetable was introduced throughout southern Alaska. A Russian salmon processing company was recorded growing potatoes on Kodiak in 1850.
Whaling ships, based in New England, also carried potatoes to feed the ship’s crews while sailing the long way west. Potatoes stored well and were a good source of vitamin C, staving off the common shipboard ailment, scurvy. These whaling crews subsequently established trading posts in northern Alaska, introducing the food to local Inupiaq.
Gold miners also realized the value of spuds during the various rushes from the Klondike to Nome. Pioneer Fannie Quigley grew and fed local potatoes to miners in remote Kantishna, now part of Denali National Park and Preserve. The hardy root could be grown in all regions of the state, even in the far north with longer summer days offsetting cooler soil temperatures.
Yet, often, it was the local Native people who nurtured and maintained these original potato varieties specific to the state. Southeast Alaska offers the best examples, such as the “Kasaan,” “Haida,” and “Tlingit” potatoes. The genetics of these have been traced directly back to their origins in Chile and Mexico.
The backbone of commercial ag in Alaska
Since those early days, potatoes have remained an incredibly versatile vegetable, grown from Alaska’s north slope (hardiness zone 1 a/b) to the Aleutian Islands (hardiness zone 7b). While more Alaskan acres are dedicated to grain production, potatoes create more revenue, with annual sales reaching up to $3 million. Considering one in five Alaskans is thought to be “food insecure,” providing access to affordable, healthy food through local agriculture is a priority, especially in bush Alaska. Potatoes are the most common staple grown in community and home gardens, and they remain the backbone of Alaska’s commercial agriculture.
Potatoes are grown commercially from Fairbanks and Delta south to Homer. Alaska’s potatoes are primarily sold in grocery stores, restaurants, and farmers markets for local consumption. The popular Alaska Chip Company, founded in 2003 by Ralph and Darcy Carney in Anchorage, is the only company to use Alaska-grown potatoes in a secondary industry. Over 300,000 pounds annually of local spuds are made into four flavors of chips for a delicious, on-the-go snack. These Alaskan chips were voted #2 in the United States by the Chicago Tribune in 2015 in a search for America’s best kettle chip.
Another essential function of Alaska’s commercially grown potatoes is to serve as certified seed stock. Alaska is blessed with few potato diseases and pests, making it important to certify the seed potatoes used. Planting local seed stock minimizes the threat of diseases introduced from outside seed. The certification program allows growers to use very low levels of pesticides, if any at all. Poor soil quality in many of the young, native soils does often require boosting with supplemental fertilizer. Other Alaskan resources, namely seaweed, crab shells, and commercial fish waste, are used to make natural fertilizers that provide a source of burn-free nitrogen along with phosphorus, potassium, and calcium.
Variety of potatoes
Alaska’s hunger for more variety in potato adaptability, flavor, taste, and appearance has nurtured a demand for more potato varieties than commonly available in most of the Lower 48. The Alaska Plant Materials Center in Palmer has screened over 600 varieties for adaptation to high latitude growing. Out of those, around 80 varieties of seed potatoes are available in any given year to growers, ranging from all-blue to all-red, purple-skinned, yellow flesh, white, and russet. “Yukon Gold” is by far the most popular variety. Retired Potato Specialist Bill Campbell developed two new varieties during his 32-year tenure with the Plant Materials Center. Still growing in popularity nationwide, “Magic Molly,” an all-blue fingerling variety named after his daughter, and “Magic Myrna,” a sweet, yellow-fleshed fingerling variety named after his wife, will forever be his legacy. These brightly colored potatoes also pack extra antioxidants; blue/purple potatoes contain flavonoids, which have been shown to lower inflammation and help prevent heart disease.
Agriculture in the north
Agriculture in Alaska appears to be growing in popularity. The number of farms increased 30 percent from 2012 to 2017, making Alaska #1 in the country for new farms. The state has also seen a tremendous increase in the number of farmers markets and their popularity. The COVID-19 pandemic created a renewed interest in home gardening, causing many greenhouses in 2020 to sell out of starter plants weeks earlier than in a normal year. Bags of certified seed potatoes of any variety were tough to find by mid-May. The pandemic has focused Alaskans’ attention more on growing food locally and not having to rely on an interstate shipping system to provide fresh produce. Yet in 2014, the Alaska Food Policy Council concluded that the acreage needed for Alaskans to feed themselves, independent of also feeding the influx of visitors in a typical year, is not realistically attainable. The desire for more land for suburban housing projects competes with the need to expand agriculture, especially in the Matanuska-Susitna region. The Alaska Farmland Trust was founded in 2005 to protect prime agricultural lands for use by future generations. If agriculture is to continue to grow in Alaska, it will take a concerted effort to recognize and support the industry’s importance. Tourism would also benefit with restaurants being able to provide more local food, summer visitors enjoying the open-air markets and farm tours, and the state’s fairs to show off Alaska’s famous giant vegetables.
Potatoes helped build Alaska and will continue to provide an easy-to-grow, adaptable food source for all parts of the state. The success of the potato illustrates the importance of agriculture even to a place better known for its glaciers, volcanoes, mountains, and other natural resources. Alaska’s state flower is the “forget-me-not,” but maybe it should have been the potato flower.