Sarvari Potato More

Friday the thirteenth’s “ Harvest of Stories” felt a fitting way to round off the summer. A public feast in the glasshouse, where it was exactly warm enough to sit for an evening. Although the changes had been rung on some of the beds, where mere glints of winter salad plants are making the first small grips into their incredible journey, all the climbing crops still stood tall and resplendant: in the candlelight they surely merged into deep curtains drawing into the night.

The stories, told by different voices, pertained to the different plant species and varieties grown at Hawkwood, now transformed into the fantastic feast. Some of these tales have been touched in previous Musings: others await their opening into these particular pages. The story of the potato, from Raleigh’s alleged introduction to the Great Hunger, leaves a shadow longer than most plants in our taught history. Marlene recounted a further chapter:

On the very evening that a full “Smith period” blight warning was declared in our E4 area, we were reminded of the work of Dr. Sarvari, a Hungarian who began breeding potatoes for high blight resistance and achieved some success. Potato blight is a dynamic, mutating disease. Whilst “conventional” famers can respond to this quality with repeated sprays –last year many will have applied copper-based fungicides up to twenty times – the organic grower eschews the long term damage this causes, relying entirely on cultural methods, a key one being resistant varieties. Yet so shape-shifting is the Phytophthora fungus that firm immune favourites such as Lady Eve Balfour have now become susceptible. Enter the Sarvari Trust.

Dr. Sarvari took his findings to Scottish and Danish potato growers, and a Trust has been established in Wales, developing the “Sarpo” range of potatoes to the point of commercial availability. The Sarpos are by all accounts, at present at least, extraordinarily dismissive of the crippling sickness. In the Entrance Field, the dense green foliage of our Sarpo Mira hasn’t flinched as the wind and rain tosses fungal spores this way and that, whilst under the protection of glass, our tomatoes steadily succumb. As we face a period of increasingly uncertain weather conditions, the Sarvari Trust are one of the Great White Hopes for sustainable spuds.

Last year, the unfunded Trust raised £10,000 through crowd fundraising to continue its research. Meanwhile, over in Norwich, the John Innes Centre Sainsbury Laboratory have secretively, unaccountably, spent £1.7 million of public money failing to develop a genetically modified blight resistant potato. Last year, campaigners from Britain and beyond, including a delegation from London’s Community Food Growers’ Network, visited the laboratory to tell them and the government the good news: we’ve found the potato you’re looking for! This year, their trials continue apace.

It’s not unusual, the sacrificing of commons sense on the alter of corporate profit, but examples such as this throw the matter into sharp relief. Sharp relief also the day of the banquet, when Paul and Ed dug up the first few tubers. Last year, the day of the great Potato Lift yielded but a few rotten, infested remnants: this year, a return to that primordial pleasure of finding Irish gold, “loving the cool hardness in our hands”, as the just late Seamus Heaney put it.

Sarpo Mira, it has to be said, doesn’t boast the wonderful flavour of a Pentland or the Arran Victory: they are not a panaceae: the quest continues for the holy grail of  the potato, or indeed any vegetable cultivar, which marries radiant health with superb flavour and impressive yields. But at least in three weeks, when we bring in the maincrops, we will have plenty in our winter store. They will each tell tales of summer sun, when roasted in months to come; of decent, honest human labour and enquiry; of working with, not against, nature, and all the full promises that brings.

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