As every student at our school knows, our winters are wet, followed by periods of damp, and soggy. This was the climate that Spanish explorers encountered when they spent the winter of 1791 in Neah Bay.
Spanish captain, Salvador Fidalgo, after exploring the NW coast up to Alaska on earlier voyages, led an expedition from San Blas, Mexico, to establish a Spanish post at Neah Bay, WA. The explorers built the fort and planted a vegetable garden. After the severe winter weather, the Spanish abandoned the post, in part due to the treacherous moorage. The Makah people either traded for, or adopted the thin-skinned potatoes from the abandoned garden and have kept them in continuous cultivation for 200 years. The seed from these potatoes were identified in the 1980s and named after one of the 5 ancient Makah villages (Waatch, Sooes, Deah, Ozette and Bahaada), as the Ozette Potato. Phylogenetic studies (analysis of the DNA genome) indicate that these potatoes were directly imported from South America.
Identified as a heritage potato, the Slow Food USA added the Makah Ozette Potato to the Ark of Taste in 2005. “The US Ark of Taste is a catalog of over 200 delicious foods in danger of extinction. By promoting and eating Ark products we help ensure they remain in production and on our plates.” It has carefully propagated and made these rare potatoes available to cultivation and they have been shared among backyard enthusiasts and small farmers who bring them to restaurants and farmers’ markets. The potato was added to the Slow Food Presidia “to improve the infrastructure of artisan food production. The goals of the Presidia are to guarantee a viable future for traditional foods by stabilizing production techniques, establishing stringent production standards, and promoting local consumption.”
The Oregon foundation, Eat. Think. Grow. developed a lesson plan around the Makah Ozette Potato, which is included here for download [PDF]. A 5 minute video is available [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SyXmVQMST80].
On the last day of school before Spring Break, our students planted this heritage potato in potato-towers. Potatoes are traditionally planted in rows that are hilled up as they grow, so that more tubers will grow along the stem. Due to lack of space, many home gardeners grow potatoes in towers, to which you attach boards and fill in, as the potatoes grow. We pre-cut and pre-drilled some recycled lumber, and provided the screws and drills for the kids to put together the towers. It is so empowering to let the kids use the power tools themselves. As our program grows, I hope we will have more construction projects. Here, Mr. Bass helps a student align the screws.
Once the tower was constructed, the students filled up to the first board with dirt, planted the potatoes, and covered them up with the remaining dirt. We will continue to add dirt after 6″-12″ of the potato leaves are above the surface, and add boards as the potatoes grow. Once the tower is complete, the potatoes will be left to flower and die. In the fall, we’ll unscrew one side of the tower, collecting the dirt and potatoes as the whole thing is emptied. I can’t wait until our fall feast, served with lightly buttered Makah Ozette potatoes. Don’t forget to save some for next year!