We belong to the potato, and the potato belongs to us
The potato is an iconic symbol that lies at the very heart of the Netherlands. In this special feature, we look at how it has shaped our landscape, culture and identity. Behind this seemingly humdrum commodity lies a story about sustainability and opportunities in a complex chain of people and expertise.
The Potato Eaters
Potatoes used to be eaten mainly by the poor. They were cheap, quick and easy to prepare and, above all, nutritious.
Where does this iconic
Dutch product come from?
Potatoes were brought from Peru to Spain in 1536, and were introduced to the Netherlands during the Spanish occupation. Carolus Clusius, an important physician and botanist, is said to have planted the country’s first potato in Leiden’s botanical gardens.
While the potato may originally be Peruvian and Spanish, it’s the Dutch who have made it big. Just as the Italians grow up with pasta, so the Dutch grow up with potatoes. Many new varieties have been developed and cultivated here, and our potatoes are world famous.
Seed potatoes are planted between late March and early May. A potato planting machine makes a small ridge, places potatoes on it at intervals of 20-40 centimetres, and throws a layer of sand over them for protection.
Stems and white fluffy roots sprout from the potatoes, with the stems appearing above ground after two to three weeks. The ridges are built higher as the potatoes grow, to stop them going green. The endless rows of plants are a beautiful sight.
The potatoes form underground stolons, which thicken and form tubers from early June to late July. The foliage continues to grow, covering the entire field in July and eventually carpeting it in white or purple flowers depending on the variety. During the rest of the season, the tubers grow into edible potatoes.
After flowering, the plants may develop highly poisonous berries. Farmers would prefer to skip this step entirely because all their energy should be devoted to the growth of the tubers rather than the plant. How do you stimulate the growth and development of thicker potato skins? Simply by ending its growth, remove all the foliage and leave the potatoes for another three weeks.
After this, a harvesting machine lifts the ridges and shakes out the soil to leave the potatoes, which are very fragile and have to be treated like eggs. Next, they are either placed in storage or processed.
De cyclus van een moederknol op een aardappelveld
Did you know?
It takes 2,500 litres of water to produce a hamburger, and only 25 litres to grow a potato.
…after corn, wheat, and rice, the potato is the world’s most widely grown crop?
….the potato, like the tomato, aubergine, pepper, and chilli, belongs to the nightshade family?
…..there’s no such thing as a potato farmer, pure and simple? Rather, farmers grow potatoes along with other crops as part of a rotation.
….there are more than a thousand potato varieties, in a surprising range of colours, shapes, and sizes?
…..one kilo of boiled potatoes contains fewer calories than one kilo of rice or pasta. Potatoes are a good source of vitamins and minerals, and their fibre content aids digestion and helps with weight control.
Only half of Dutch potatoes are consumed directly as potatoes. Of the other half, some are used as seed potatoes, potatoes that are planted again the next year for new potatoes, and the rest are used to make starch, for products such as bacon and paper.
All shapes and sizes
Potatoes come in all shapes and sizes: purple, brown, yellow, thick, thin, round, soft, big, small. Different varieties are suitable for different types of cooking: you can boil, bake, fry, roast, stew, grate, mash, and steam them.
Many new varieties have been developed and cultivated in the Netherlands. We’re world famous for them, and people everywhere eat our potatoes. One variety, ‘Bintje’, is the most successful ever, forming the basis of the potato business in the Netherlands and its neighbouring countries. The Dutch became addicted to it, and the industry grew rapidly.
‘Bintje’ is a multipurpose potato with a very short growing season, performs well in a wide range of conditions, and was initially exported in huge quantities. It even has its own monument, in the Frisian village of Sumar.
But ‘Bintje’ is also disease prone, and requires a great deal of spraying, which is bad for the environment. In recent years, its popularity has declined considerably, which in turn has led to a search for new varieties.
A high-tech future
for Dutch potatoes
The potato industry presents opportunities aplenty for high-tech professions such as app designers. This sustainable crop is the future, but if it is to remain an archetypal Dutch product, there are some challenges to be met.
The Netherlands is a small country, and potatoes need land. Arable fields are giving way to housing, roads, and nature reserves, so producing qualitatively more products on the same land is the only way forward. To do this, we must first and foremost make smarter use of data, and expand our knowledge of the soil, climate, breeding techniques, mechanisation, and land planning.
The potato already has its own academy, at the Aeres University of Applied Sciences in Dronten. Farmers have access to increasing amounts of data, and they are starting to use robots.
Potatoes and big data
Like all food products, the potato has its own rich history, and its own complex supply chain from soil to plate, with each link in the chain presenting its own challenges and opportunities. But one thing seems certain: this crop is not as straightforward as it seems and is set to continue playing a key role in our diet.