On a shelf in a little building in Pemberton sit around 100 small mason jars with white lids. On the lid of each jar is a variously coloured sticker, on which is written a series of numbers and letters that explain what type of potato is inside, which grower is producing it, and the day of the year that the jar was made.
They appear mostly empty except at the very bottom, where five or 10 little green pieces of potato plant have been poked into 100 ml of jelly-like agar nutrient solution. In a few days shoots will begin to emerge from the little pieces at the point where the leaf and stem meet, and in 25 days the jars will be filled to the brim with strong potato plants. They donít look like much, but this is the entire 2016 Pemberton potato crop.
Seven of those jars now belong to Helmerís Organic Farm. The variety numbers are: 1, 2, 31, 40, 41, 44, and 52. Our grower letter code letter is F.
Based on the market value of the crop we hope will eventually be propagated from these plants, they are quite precious. If we aim to sell, for argumentís sake, 1,000 lbs of variety 41 at market in 2016 for $2.50 per pound, then I could say that this jar with a green sticker that reads 41-F-013 sitting on that shelf today is worth $2,500.
The plants will be almost up to the lids of the jars in 20 to 25 days. Thatís when I will book another few hours on the bench to cut up all those plants into more jars. After repeating the process three times this spring, Iíll finally have enough plants to take back to the farm and put in the ground. In the fall when harvested, theyíll have grown enough to produce actual potatoes, which weíll harvest and store for planting next year. And so on.
Thereís always a chance that I messed up while making the jars and Iíll know in less than a week if a break in concentration allowed a mold spore into the jar. There are very specific techniques that prevent contamination and I have gotten a lot of practice at it, but I am a long way from over-confident. A bloom of mold in the jar renders it garbage: it will impair growth. If this happens, I can request another jar to be cut from the plants that reside on the common shelf.
The common shelf contains a few jars of every variety in the valley which are maintained all year round by the lab crew. They are kept under lock and key because apparently when they werenít, growers would go ahead and help themselves and some varieties got mixed up, which is catastrophic in this industry at this stage. Thatís the legend of the lab, repeated in hushed tones to people who are petrified of messing up in there (me).
Not all potato farmers go through this Ö rigmarole. Most buy the seed for their crop from someone else who does all this work to produce a disease-free seed stock ó we ourselves buy seed for most of the varieties we grow. We tend these seven varieties because no one else will. They have been dropped due to low yield and demand in the conventional system. In our system they are gold.
Anna Helmer can take a loss, but can that river?