This harvest season, a handful of Sonoma County farmers are starting to harvest an historic potato with deep roots in the past but a fragile future.
Among them are Emmett Hopkins of Foggy River Farm, who planted 30 pounds of the endangered Bodega Red seed potatoes in his silty, loam soil in order to help rescue them from the brink of extinction.
"The Bodega Reds are by far the most vigorous out there. ... The plants are big and bushy," he said. "If they do well for us, we'll keep growing them because we believe in helping to preserve them."
Back in the 1850s, when potatoes were one of Sonoma County's first cash crops, the Bodega Red was among the spuds shipped from Sonoma County to San Francisco and beyond to feed the Gold Rush miners and entrepreneurs.
But a funny thing happened on its way to the 21st century. By the 1970s, the Bodega Red had all but disappeared from the potato fields of Bodega and Tomales, its susceptibility toward blight exacerbated by poor farming practices.
Thanks to Slow Food Sonoma County North, a local chapter of Slow Food (an international nonprofit created to promote alternatives to fast food), the Bodega Red was placed on Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste a few years ago in an effort to save its thin red skin for posterity.
The Ark of Taste catalogs foods in danger of extinction, then promotes them to ensure they remain in production.
"In order to get onto the Ark of Taste, it has to taste good," said Elissa Rubin-Mahon of Forestville, who spearheaded the effort to bring the creamy potato back to the table.
Along the way, all kinds of experts have weighed in, providing plot twists worthy of a suspense novel.
The tale began several years ago when Rubin-Mahon put out a call to people who may be growing the potato in their garden. Eventually, an anonymous donor stepped forward with a few tiny tubers.
"What we got was the equivalent of 5 or 6 potatoes the size of your pinky," she said. "They were given to the Bodega Land Trust."
The potatoes were sent to Dr. Chuck Brown of the USDA Research Service in Washington for genetic fingerprinting. Then the plot thickened.
More than 6,000 years ago, potatoes were first cultivated in the motherland of the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes mountains. Spanish explorers arrived in 1532 and carried the tubers back to Spain. Eventually, they spread across Europe and into North America.
According to Brown, however, a few potatoes made their way directly up the West Coast, without the detour.
"He had located five others, and the Bodega Red was a potential sixth," she said. "He did the genetics and found that it came from Chile, probably in the 1840s."
How the Bodega Red actually arrived in the North Bay is the subject of speculation. What Rubin-Mahon can say for sure is that it was farmed in Bodega Bay.
"I do know that the potato was grown on the flood plain of Salmon Creek," she said. "Spud Point is named for a barge of potatoes that went down there."
The Bodega Red also was on the radar of famed horticulturalist Luther Burbank, who is thought to have used it as parent stock for his Burbank Red potato.