Potato famine (variety) reaches Ontario

The infamous spud that sparked the mid-1800s Irish potato famine is growing this summer in a potato patch run by the University of Guelph.

The variety, called “Lumper,” was  among about 120 trial potato varieties shown Aug. 12 at U of G’s Elora Research Station as part of this year’s potato research field day.

Called a “historical specialty,” the Lumper variety was decimated by blight in Ireland, leading to that country’s 1845-46 potato famine.

About 200 Lumper plants are growing this summer in trial plots at the station, northwest of Guelph.

The University runs annual trials to help growers and breeders evaluate varieties for Ontario farmers and producers of table and chipping potatoes. The program also involves the Ontario Potato Board, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Canadian Snack Food Association.

This is the first year that Lumper has been grown here, said Vanessa Currie, a technician in the Department of Plant Agriculture. She grew the seedlings in the campus greenhouse last year and collected mini-tubers that she planted in Elora this past spring.

She got the tissue last year from an AAFC potato gene bank in Fredericton, N.B. The Potato Research Centre keeps genetic material for mostly Canadian-bred varieties, including heritage potatoes.

Jane Percy, potato gene resource technician at the centre, said records show early-1800s settlers likely grew the Lumper variety in Canada. She doesn’t know whether farmers tried to grow it here after the famine.

The gene bank occasionally sends Lumper tissue to Canadians who ask for it, mostly researchers or breeders interested in heritage varieties. “It would be great to see it grown on a large scale and see how it produces and look at the quality and compare it to accounts from the past,” said Percy.

In the field, the Lumpers look as healthy as other varieties Currie is testing. She plans to dig out a few tubers for display this week and will harvest the entire crop in September.

The variety may be no more susceptible to infection than other kinds of potatoes, she said, pointing out that mid-1800s farmers knew nothing about micro-organisms and managed crops differently than today.

More important, Currie had wondered whether the variety was as unpalatable as people claimed.

In a book published for 2008’s International Year of the Potato, British author John Reader wrote that Lumper had been chosen for its high yields to feed large peasant families. But the variety was described as wet, tasteless and unwholesome.

“Reading about how awful it was, it got me curious,” says Currie. She will evaluate Lumper for its taste, cooking and storage – as she does every year for other varieties tested here – although there are no plans to develop it for commercial use.

She said her project underlines the need for crop diversity rather than relying on a single variety. Annual trials reflect changing consumer tastes, including interest in healthful spuds and locally grown varieties. “Clearly the interest and energy into plant breeding and variety development is a result of the earlier spread of monoculture.”

Besides Lumper, this year’s varieties grown at Guelph include Ruby Gold. That variety was developed by former U of G breeder Gary Johnston, who developed the popular Yukon Gold potato.

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