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A Century of North Carolina Potatoes
You can see the farm’s story in the framed photos and potato bags decorating the office. You can hear it in the voices of the seventh generation to farm the land as they recall stories from childhood.
Ferebee Farm, a century farm located in rural northeast North Carolina, has grown potatoes on land that has been in the family for more than 100 years. For six weeks every summer, the family’s focus is on harvesting the white, red, and yellow varieties of potatoes that have been the farm’s main crop since its beginning.
The family has seen many changes in how potatoes are grown, harvested, and sold in those 100 years. During a visit last year, Martha Ferebee recalled riding on the potato diggers as a child to throw out trash and dirt.
Potato vines are now killed before harvest, which causes the potato’s skin to set, or get firm. As a result, when the potatoes are dug, fewer are scuffed or scraped. This is important because all the farm’s potatoes are sold for the fresh market, destined for potato bins in produce sections of grocery stores across the eastern U.S.
Potatoes are now dug, washed, graded, and packed in one day. After cooling in a refrigerated room overnight, they are usually loaded onto trucks the next day, destined for the consumer. Modern equipment, which is often expensive, allows the farm to get the crop on grocery shelves quickly.
Even with modern technology, North Carolina potatoes aren’t available year-round. I always wondered why, and asked Ferebee when I visited her farm. The crop in our state is dug in June and July, when air and soil temperatures are high. For a potato (which grows underground) to have any storage life, the field heat needs to be removed, bringing the internal temperature of the potato down. This is accomplished by using refrigeration, not a fridge like we have in our kitchens, but large, temperature-controlled rooms. The cost to get the heat out of a freshly dug North Carolina potato is so high, it’s cost prohibitive for farmers. So, all North Carolina potatoes are sold over a six- to eight-week period in the summer, destined for the fresh market (called tablestock) or a bag of potato chips.
Something else the family has seen over the years is the importance of soil selection. Turns out, potatoes are picky about the kind of soil they like to grow in. Red and yellow potatoes are even pickier than white.
The family members manage its fields, over 3,000 acres, so the right soil is always available for the 500 acres planted in potatoes. They use a three-year crop rotation of soybeans, corn, and potatoes to help manage insects and disease. If they don’t wait three years before planting potatoes in the same field, the quality of the potatoes decreases. If they plant potatoes behind soybeans, the quality is OK but not as good as if potatoes are planted the year after corn.
I don’t know much about how potatoes are grown, but I do know if I have questions, the best people to ask are the farmers who grow them. Who else knows more about the crop than the people who have been tending the land for over 100 years?