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The Irish potato: Cash crop of the Albemarle

Berry, Marjorie FOMOA Board Member.jpg

Marjorie Berry

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Marjorie Berry
Museum of the Albemarle

Sunday, April 14, 2019

When one thinks of North Carolina agricultural products, the first commodity that comes to mind is tobacco. But that’s not the case in the northeastern part of the state. Here, the Irish potato rules.

Settlers to the Albemarle from Virginia in the mid-17th century began cultivating potatoes as a commodity. They have held an important place in the area’s economy here ever since.

Let’s take a look at the history of potatoes. The first peoples to cultivate this subterranean crop were the Incan Indians in Peru, around 8000-5000 B.C. Over time, the crop made its way north to the diets of North American native peoples.

Sir Walter Raleigh’s exploratory parties brought the potato from what is now North Carolina to the British Isles in the 1500s. Legend has it that Raleigh made a gift of a potato plant to Queen Elizabeth, who was not impressed. Expecting silver and gold from Raleigh’s New World expeditions, the Queen didn’t exactly lose her head over the humble tuber. (Raleigh lost his head, later on, but that’s a different story!)

Raleigh was the first to bring potatoes to Ireland, and began growing them at his estate there. As history has shown us, the Irish became dependent on potatoes as a food source—hence the name Irish potatoes. During the Irish potato famine of the 19th century over a million people died of starvation. This instigated a mass emigration of Irish people, mainly to America and Australia.

The major production area of commercially grown Irish potatoes in North Carolina is here on the coastal plain, near the rivers and salt water sounds. Here, the fertile soils, mild temperatures, and ample rainfall provide an ideal environment for potato production.

Seed potatoes are planted in late February or early March. These consist of sliced potatoes, each of which bears an “eye,” which will produce a potato plant. New potatoes can be harvested 50-60 days after planting, but potatoes take 80-100 days to fully mature. The harvest starts in early June, and can continue through August.

Potatoes are grown underground and are harvested by machines known as potato diggers. They are then graded on conveyers that load them onto tractor-trailer trucks. The potatoes are delivered to market directly from the field, usually within 48 hours.

Today, North Carolina growers produce 16,000 acres of potatoes, mostly in Camden, Carteret, Currituck, Hyde, Pamlico, Pasquotank, Tyrell and Washington counties.

In 1940, The Albemarle Potato Festival was established to celebrate the area’s cash crop and major contributor to the local economy. In 2009, the General Assembly designated the event The North Carolina Potato Festival. Attracting over 25,000 festival-goers to Elizabeth City’s waterfront each year, the 2019, 3-day long Potato Festival begins Friday, May 17. Come on out and join the fun!

Marjorie Berry is an Information Specialist at Museum of the Albemarle.

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