It takes a certain type of soil to grow a good potato.
And favourable conditions across the Causeway Coast and Glens mean the area is home to a large community of potato growers.
The spud is produced on farms right across the region before ending up on shop shelves and dinner plates.
James Kyle from Stranocum has been growing the vegetable since leaving school. He says it’s not an easy occupation but it’s clear he has a passion for the industry.
“Yes it’s hard work, but it’s interesting. I’ve been growing potatoes for 40 years, following my father. We’ve a dairy herd as well so you’re kept busy,” he said.
Mark McCurdy also followed in his father’s footsteps. Now several members of his family are involved in the potato business at Whitepark Bay. And while soil conditions may be favourable, the climate is not always ideal.
“This year the weather has been very bad. There’s been a lot of rain and humidity which heightens the chance of blight affecting the crop so we’ve been spraying every seven days to try and prevent it,” he said.
For the McCurdy’s, their work with the potato follows a complete path from seed to shelf. They plant, grow, harvest, package and distribute from their farm.
“It’s long hours and it’s labour-intensive but I don’t know anything else. My father first started growing potatoes 50 years ago, so we’re continuing the tradition. I always wonder do people know the hard work that goes into getting potatoes on to the shelves. And it’s certainly a tougher market now with competition from other products,” explained Mark.
As a member of the carbohydrate family, the potato often competes for a place on our plates with rice and pasta. But if you’re looking for a nutrient-rich and calorie-light food then the potato ticks all the boxes. According to research from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, one medium-sized potato is not only free from fat, sodium, sugar, cholesterol and gluten, it contains just 100 calories. This is considerably less than a similar sized serving of rice or pasta - food for thought when it comes to meal-planning and cooking.
Adrian Jamison, from Ballycastle, is a member of the UFU’s Potato Committee. Together with his brother Nigel, they are keeping up the family’s potato-growing tradition instigated by their father Tom over 50 years ago.
“The North Antrim area is renowned for its soil, and the potatoes we grow here have a clean, bright skin. Varieties grown in other parts would be totally different to look at it, and that’s all down to the soil,” he said.
Science also has a role to play, and testing are regularly carried out by agronomists to keep growing conditions at an optimum level.
Adrian explained: “Research and soil testing are very important to us. The results are fed back to the grower, and we act accordingly to ensure the crop is as good as it can be.”
Adrian has witnessed a lot of changes in the industry through the years. Machines now do jobs previously carried out by hand, and in the last 10 years the processes have become completely mechanised.
But despite developments in technology and scientific research, an age-old problem remains.
“Blight is still a major threat,” said Adrian. “Especially with the damp, humid conditions that we have experienced this year.”
Like the McCurdy’s, Adrian has been spraying the crops on a weekly basis which is an added cost and labour burden.
The family recently expanded their enterprise, and now send pre-packed potatoes directly to the shops for purchase by the public.
Across the region, it’s the legacy of John Clarke OBE which is perhaps most significant in the potato growing industry.
He was born near Ballintoy in 1889, and despite leaving school with no formal qualifications, he went on to become one of the most internationally respected experts in potato breeding science. He developed 33 certified varieties, and was dedicated to research into blight-resistance.
To mark this rich history and celebrate the region’s agri-food industry, The Northern Ireland Potato Festival returns on Saturday 7th October.
It has been held annually near the Giant’s Causeway since 2013, and its recent launch heard there could be no better site in the world for such a celebration.
Located just a stone’s throw from the World Heritage Site, surrounded by stunning countryside and coastline, it’s a claim that’s hard to argue with. So why not come along on the day, inspire your own passion for potatoes, and show your support for our farmers and producers.