Gaye LeBaron: Four-ton potato has roots that go back to Luther Burbank

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Would it surprise you to hear that Luther Burbank invented the Tater Tot?

Of course it would. The mild-mannered gardener who accomplished what seemed like hybridizing miracles in his Santa Rosa garden a century and more ago never saw a Tater Tot, never ate one, never even heard of one. But, as they say on all the cop shows now, “his DNA is in there somewhere.”

You will undoubtedly hear all about it this week when the Big Idaho Potato Truck comes to Sonoma County.

This 72-foot motorized behemoth, carrying a 28-foot, 8,000-pound fiberglass potato, has been touring the country since 2012, celebrating the centennial of Idaho’s Potato Commission. It will be parked beside Luther Burbank Home & Gardens for public viewing from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesday. It then will head to Sebastopol for a viewing event Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in front of the West County Museum.

Santa Rosa’s Luther Burbank Home & Gardens docents have been readying the gardens for company all month and have all sorts of potato-related activities planned — most of them for kids.

They have even borrowed a boxful of Mr. Potato Head toys from Sonoma State’s life science department where they are used as hands-on learning tools to teach genetics. Who knew? Luther as Mr. Potato Head? Hey, whatever works.

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It’s a little surprising that the Big Idaho Potato Truck (emphasis on “Big”), now in its eighth touring season, hasn’t found its way to Luther’s “chosen spot” before this year, considering all he has meant, botanically and historically, to Idaho’s pride and joy.

Of course, LB didn’t invent the potato either, but the potato that Idaho celebrates — arguably the most popular vegetable in the USA — bears his imprint — and his name.

It is the one that feeds many millions, whether baked, French-fried or “tatered,” and it is a variation of the potato young Luther “discovered” in his New England market garden in 1872.

It is also a direct descendant of the tuber which, three years later, helped pay for the curious young gardener’s train ticket to Santa Rosa.

In his early 20s, he was curious enough about the nature of things to recognize the value of a rare seed ball forming on an Early Rose potato plant in his tiny market garden in Lunenburg, Massachusetts. And he was smart enough to know that the Early Rose never (well, almost never) sets seed. He had never seen such a rarity, and he never would again. For a time, in later years, he offered a reward for anyone who would bring him another. He never had to pay up.

The Lunenburg seed ball had 23 seeds. Luther planted them and, as his biographers report, got 21 “failures” and kept two, which he fostered for two seasons before choosing the better one. It proved to be very, very good, doubling the potatoes-per-plant of its Early Rose parent and being acclaimed as an excellent “baker.”

It also became Burbank’s ticket to California and greater glory. He sold his very promising new potato to a seedsman named Gregory who had tried one crop and pronounced it “the best potato I ever ate.”

Two life-changing things came of the sale. First, he paid Luther $150 (which, in today’s currency, would be somewhere around a paltry $3,000) but it would bring his net worth to $600-plus, enough for a transcontinental railroad ticket to Santa Rosa. Second, Gregory named his new product the “Burbank seedling,” a name, later with the descriptive “russet” added, that would carry the “Plant Wizard” legend much further.

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Sonoma County was already “potato country” when young Luther arrived with several of his seedlings tucked in his duffel. He had a brother and two half brothers who were already here, and he knew their stories of the rich soil and temperate climate and was eager to “get growin.”

He undoubtedly learned about the “Bodega Red” potato soon after he arrived. His half brothers were farming near Tomales, and the neighboring Sonoma Coast had been growing, marketing and shipping potatoes since the Gold Rush made a boomtown of San Francisco. According to legend, hungry forty-niners would trade a lump of gold for a ‘tater.

Speculation remains about who planted the first Bodega Reds. Plant scientists now know that its origins were in Peru, which points to a sea captain named Stephen Smith, grantee of the Bodega Rancho, who brought his bride, Manuela Torres, from Peru. Furthermore, Smith was known to allow the early American settlers (known as “squatters”) to farm his land while waiting for the title to clear the federal courts, as prescribed by the treaty that ended the Mexican War in 1848.

It’s likely, considering there were schooner-loads of potatoes going south from Bodega Bay in the 1850s, that the squatters grew potatoes and passed the seedlings onto the permanent residents.

James Watson, one of the earliest ranch owners in the Bodega area may have had some of those Peruvian potatoes. Robert Thompson, Sonoma County’s first historian, credits the pioneer he calls “Uncle Jimmy” Watson, with being the first to grow the round, red-skinned variety — smaller than a tennis ball, bigger than a golf ball — which came to be known as the “Bodega Red.”

But, as potato production gave way to dairies, orchards, hop yards and vineyards, the “Red” was threatened with extinction, grown by a very few sons and daughters of old west county farmers in their kitchen gardens.

Most Sonoma County residents had never heard of it, much less eaten even one. Then, within the last decade, Slow Food Sonoma County was determined to bring it back. In the last five or six years members have distributed more than 9,000 pounds of Bodega Reds, not only to farmers, nurseries and feed stores but also to retailers.

Now, after many months of search-and-rescue work, Slow Food has selected a family farm in the California Delta to grow enough seed to supply the market. Slow Food Sonoma County’s conservation work on the region’s signature potato is one of a half-dozen projects worldwide to be honored by the Foundation for Biodiversity. The Bodega Red is back.

So, you see, Burbank bringing his potato to the county was a coals-to-Newcastle move, although it probably took him a while to figure out why his nursery customers weren’t eager to plant the Burbank seedling. Not only had he wandered into Bodega Red territory, he had arrived just as the “orchard era” of Sonoma County agriculture was budding. It was, in fact, the “miracle” delivery of prune seedlings to rancher Warren Dutton that was the start of Burbank’s reputation as “A Gardener Touched with Genius” (the title of author Peter Dreyer’s Burbank biography published in the centennial year of Burbank’s arrival in Santa Rosa). Can we all agree that it’s a better name than Mr. Potato Head?

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As for the business at hand: the Big Idaho Potato Truck is certain to attract a considerable amount of Sonoma County’s attention this week, even if it’s just some commuter saying “Wothehell?” on the freeway.

So, is it a commercial endeavor? You bet your spuds it is! But that’s not going to bother the kids who will see it, learn things they didn’t know about Burbank and about the food they eat — and never quite look at a potato the same way again.

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