Many elementary students grow potatoes, sprouted in cartons on sunny windowsills, as a classroom assignment. But heirloom potato varieties—especially upmarket fingerlings—are a more complicated crop than those humble student potato projects.
“Organic fingerling potatoes are fussy and need a lot of attention,” says Dan Chin, owner of Chin Farms, in Klamath Falls, Ore. Chin’s specialized equipment can dig up potatoes as small as peanuts, although most are a few inches long. Planting is challenging, too, Chin says about the process of coaxing small fingerling seeds into planters with the correct spacing and cultivating them sans pesticides. In addition to mechanical weeding, fingerlings require meticulous hand weeding.
After growing during the summer, harvest of the mid-to-late season tubers runs through September and October. State-of-the-art storage facilities where air flow, temperature and humidity are controlled, preserve potatoes’ freshly dug flavor through May.
Tanya Fell, sales director at Strohauer Farms, in LaSalle, Colo., says farming fingerlings is costly. Fingerling seed is three times the cost of conventional potatoes.
Different types have varying demands, but fingerlings basically fall into two categories. Determinate varieties have vines that are fairly orderly. The indeterminate varieties may produce excessive vines and have to be controlled—meaning a careful balance of fertilizer so that the vines don’t grow so large that it’s hard to get to the small fingerlings growing underneath.
Jerry Tominaga, vice president of Southwind Farms, in Heyburn, Idaho, says, “Fingerlings have ‘wow’ factor on the plate, with their different colors, shapes and sizes. Small potatoes mean fast cooking. There’s no waste with fingerlings, because you don’t peel off the thin skins.”
Not to mention the taste, which Tominaga describes as moist, with a nutty, buttery flavor. “These are moister than usual potatoes, because they don’t have all that starch that makes them dry, like baking potatoes.”
Chef and Oregon Potato Commission member Leif Eric Benson is working with farmers on a project that maps which heirloom potatoes grow best where, similar to how wine-producing regions are identified by the type of grape. The potatoes are submitted by growers, coded with a number and presented to a panel for a blind taste test.
“Growers, chefs and consumers never have the opportunity to compare the taste of different potatoes,” Benson says. “When compared side-by-side, you can really distinguish the flavors, textures and expression of the terroir—the characteristics of the soil and growing conditions.” A flavor matrix empowers the tasters with a lexicon of words to describe what they are tasting, such as earthy, nutty, buttery and sweet.
Heirloom fingerling potatoes come in yellow, red and purple varieties, and most growers produce several types of each hue. “A few years ago, people didn’t know what to think about a small potato that is purple both inside and out,” Fell says.
“Television cooking shows have really helped.” Weary of the bad press against carbs, growers stress that colored potatoes are fat free and high in fiber and antioxidants. “Fingerlings work well in many preparation methods, from cold and warm salads to roasting, baking, boiling and steaming,” Benson adds.
Tominaga, whose best-sellers are the golden varieties of Russian Banana and La Ratte, says supply and demand drives the price of fingerlings. “We sell according to size, [but] we don’t want them very big,” Tominaga says. “The yellows are a familiar color, and so they’re the top sellers. Then the reds—ours are Red Thumb and French Fingerling—followed by the Purple Fiesta and the Purple Peruvian, which yield less and are therefore more expensive to grow based on cost per acre. As a result, the purples cost consumers a little more and we don’t sell as many, but [we] make up the loss on the yellows.”
The United States Potato Board reports that consumers pay about 85 cents a pound for specialty potatoes, versus 45 to 60 cents a pound for a typical five-pound bag of baking potatoes. The board says that buying direct from the grower is usually a better value.